Storytime: Fair Trade.

September 25th, 2013

“Leonard! Leonard!”
The voice was ancient, and reedy in that way that made the mind think of ancient kazoos. It was suited to one of two environs: a crypt or a boardroom.
“Leonard! Leonard! Come here at once, at once at once!”
As called, so I did come, up the stairs, through the archway, up the mirrored halls with their thousand-thousand reflections and into the cathedral. I came and stood for the hundredth thousandth time in the private office of my employer, Mr. Morton.
I have experienced much in fifty-seven years in Mr. Morton’s service. I have seen numbers dance in ways that made mere falsification seem a child’s game. I have heard the screams of Wall Street executives as they are tossed into pits of magma. I have had no less than seven entirely new organs placed within my torso, two of which are unknown to science. But never, ever, never ever had I heard naked fear in my employer’s voice, or seen it vibrate through the fleshy skip-flaps of his jowls and spotty forearms. Mr. Morton was very old and kept his fear cloaked decently under a thick strata of drugs, as he considered to be both proper and socially acceptable. To hear it writhe blindly, exposed pale to the world like this was… very disturbing. I had not thought that was a feeling I could still experience.
“Leonard, pay attention!” Watery brown eyes were fixed on me with a raptor’s fierceness, telling me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t pull it together now I’d be sleeping in the tiger tank tonight.
“I apologize, sir,” I said contritely as I cut myself in offering with the ornamental stingray spine that lay atop Mr. Morton’s desk for that purpose. “How may I be of assistance?”
“Assistance…” breathed Mr. Morton. His face twitched; not the usual tic of a nerve decades out of touch with the brainstem, but an uncontrolled flicker of dread. “Assistance…yes. Yes. That’s what I need. I told you so, didn’t I, Leonard?”
“You did, sir.”
“Well then, assist me!”
“As you wish sir. In what manner?”
Mr. Morton pulled himself together. This took some time, even with the little control panel in his wrist that controlled the tightness of his suit. I waited.
“Right. Right. Leonard!”
“Yes, sir?”
“Go down to the vaults, Leonard. Empty them.”
I frowned. To reduce a single of the twenty-seven safehouses embedded beneath the manor to its waterline would mandate purchasing Disneyworld. To remove multiples would be… “How many exactly, sir?”
“ALL OF THEM!” shrieked Mr. Morton, spasmodically flailing his arms. “Each and every one! To the penny! To the cent! Scrape out the wallets and shatter the piggybanks and dig into the cushions of the chesterfields! Hollow me out! Pay it to this address! And don’t bother with a receipt.”
If I had still possessed red blood cells I dare say I would have blanched. As it was, I saluted without discomfort, then bit my nails all the way down the hall. Had the boss finally lost it? No, no, wrong term…had he finally lost it for good? Mr. Morton had his moments, true, and his days, and his years on occasion, but was this the big one, the final straw?
No, it couldn’t be. He’d outlived four generations of Wall Street. He’d outlive me. Although admittedly my death would not be from natural causes, as few if any of those could harm me now.
So I walked down the ninety-nine-hundred steps to the twenty-seven vaults. They were arranged in descending scale; the largest and grandest (solid artifacts) being the size of a football field, the smallest and plainest (micro-jewelry and a single nanochip of black-grey-and-white-mail) the size of my littlest fingernail.
I pressed the emergency excavation button and stood back as each impenetrable safe began to burrow its way into the upper mantle before tunneling to the address Mr. Morgan had given me, there to disgorge its contents to the provided biometric ID. Somewhere out there a man (it was almost always a man) had just become very much richer, in return for… something. But what?

“Leonard! Leonard! Come here right now, this instant, five minutes ago! Leonard!”
I lurched up the stairs in the dead of night. The sunglasses didn’t help, but they kept my eyes in place and so I was reluctant to remove them even as I clambered up the two-foot teak Everest that was the approach to Mr. Morgan’s evening office, one hand at the obsidian railing.
“Yes, sir?”
“Leonard?” Leonard, it’s important. It’s very important. Leonard, I want you to go to the Narrow Room. Bring the fifth candle and the ninth lamb and the red book. And hurry, damn you! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
I stared. I’d held the red book twice. It was why I now possessed seven fingers and one thumb. “Sir?”
“What is it?”
“What shall I trade?”
He waved his hands. Loose skin flapped like sails in a hurricane. “ALL of it, damn you!” he shrieked. “Everything! Offer them everything, anything, all of it down to the last drop, if only they fulfil this contract.”
“Absolutely, sir. Which contract, sir?”
A small grey envelope bounced off my forehead with stupendous force for one so aged. “Leonard! I haven’t got time for your muckabouts! IT MUST BE MINE AGAIN. HURRY!”
So I hurried to the far western tower, with its groaning stones and moaning hinges, and I walked to the very top. And there, wedged between three uncut stone crenellations and under an arched roof cut from the liver of a tree older than H. sapiens, I read the red book, the fierce book, with a simple iron knife in my hand and an annoyed lamb pinned underneath my knee, doped to the gills on extinct herbs. I fought the urge to roll my eyes, uttered the last line of mangled Latin, and struck home with a damp and quickly-quashed bleat.
The air is always the first to respond. It bubbles, but does not boil. After that comes the smell; acrid sharp smoke overlaying the simmering rot of high summer.
Then the noise, of course, but I had earplugs for that. I am skilled at lip-reading, and with what I was speaking to that was well and proper, for it had no less than nine mouths and sixteen-and-a-half lips.
The bargain, of course, was forgettable. I handed over the envelope, we exchanged agreements, and then in the process of my follower mediator’s leave-taking he devoured the last six minutes of my life. I stood alone in the Narrow Room, an annoyed and quite lively lamb beneath my knee, the red book in hand. A hand now missing another finger and also the little grey envelope.
Alone in one of the few parts of the building utterly lacking surveillance devices, I indulged myself in a little whistle. Handing over a blank contract to them that listen to the red book’s words is no laughing matter. Whatever Mr. Morgan was after, it would have to be quite the prize at this price.
I took the ninth lamb back to its pen. Waste not want not.

“Yes si-“
“To the pit, damn you! To the pit! Offer them all of it, offer them everything! EVERYTHING!”
I paused. “Sir, we’ve already offered everything to-“
“He turned them down, damn you, he turned them down! Wouldn’t listen to a word they said! Well, I’ve got other things to offer, even if I bite my thumb at it – it’s mine, damnit, how dare he tax me so for what’s mine! To the pit!” The cane crashed down on the dodo-bone desk with impotent force. “Hop to it!”
So I travelled to the deepest stair that led to the lowest floor with the lowest room, where a hole dug down where magma feared to tread, and I took my congress with the deepfolk in trial by combat to the death, as is accepted among their type. I shared blood with their chieftain, swore to destroy our enemies, and presented them the deal offered by Mr. Morgan, the same he’d given to them that listen to the red book.
Surely this would be enough.

“It wasn’t enough! Take this to the Pool, damn you, to the Pool! Give them all of it, and all that will come! All of it! Go, go, go!”
The Pool lies sixteen miles to the northeast. Accessible through a complex web of little twisty tunnels bored out centuries ago beneath Mr. Morgan’s Olympic swimming pool, the route to its depths is far too small and tight to fit even the smallest set of SCUBA gear through. Luckily I do not require oxygen.
Down at the edge of the Pool, where the floor of the cavern dropped away – to the sea somewhere, beyond the continental shelf, Mr. Morgan had muttered – I sang the song. It was tuneless, melodyless, breathless, and mostly too low-pitched to be heard by humans above the level of a vague discomforting humming at your molars.
What heard me, came. I made my offer, and it tried to consume me.
I believe I made it back alive. It is very difficult to recall events that occur in the presence of such things. But I was done, and a greater power now held the terms of Mr. Morgan’s most terrible of bargains.

“Leonard, Leonard, Leonard! It hasn’t worked, hasn’t worked! Get yourself to the Astronomica this second, you slug! Get me my deal, get me my bargain, gain for me what is mine! GO!”
The Astronomica is hidden beneath retractable ceilings and false vegetation. Mr. Morgan never looks to the stars for trivial things, not in the slightest. He looks with purpose, and it was with purpose that I set to the computers of this place. Not a single one of them was inferior to any other computer outside the room, and linked together they arguably were a greater force than that of all others in man’s past and present combined.
They were just barely sophisticated enough to catch the lowest of the lowest forms of communication I was attempting to tap into. I had an offer to put onto a market whose currencies were worlds and solar systems; where property was measured in light-years; where suns were extinguished as penalties for a minor contract infraction; where legalese itself was a separate language with no shared descendants that had evolved over billions of years.
I sat there at the galactic version of a crude telegram, barely a step above semaphore, and I placed my offer.
A middle power from Galactic Central Core was interested, more out of novelty than anything else. In its world, blank-cheque offers were a charming myth told to the young and stupid, and whatever warranted such desires was worth at least a casual look. I debated with it for ninety-five hours and escaped with my psyche still attached to my body, and I counted the deal a grand one: both for myself and for Mr. Morgan.

I had my hand on the doorknob when the second scream came. “Go! And try EVERYTHING!”

So I did.

I crawled down dark miles in abandoned Yukon mines and spoke to the crawling things that underlay our continents and live our lives upside-down yet fully awake as we can only dream.
I walked through the painting that wasn’t there and spoke to the thing that whispers in every artist’s brain and takes what it wants when it pleases.
I played The Game That Kills and gained a high-score and thus earned an audience with its creator: Zeus, the mad thing birthed from the stolen notes of Alan Turing.
I soared the skies on a biplane’s wings and dealt with the thin things that live sideways in the deepest clouds, watching everything and learning nothing, who dislike jet engines.
I ate plants that ate back and made promises to whatever flashed in front of my eyeballs about whatever was crossing my mind.
I unfossilized myself in Wyoming for a hundred and fifty million years and spoke to Largest One amidst the fern prairies using a two-hundred-decibel loudspeaker, and it may have noticed me.
I burned half a national park (which nation? I can’t recall) and swore upon the ashes that I would speak to whatever had noticed me.

And I tried everything.
None of it worked.

“Leonard,” whispered Mr. Morgan. “Leonard. Leonard.”
“Yes sir. I’m here sir.”
Mr. Morgan coughed unpleasantly for sixteen minutes as I wiped the phlegm from his desk and pants.
“Leonard,” he resumed. “I’m through. I have no more options, Leonard. Fetch me my coat.”
“Certainly, sir,” I replied. “Which one?”
“The thickest,” he said.
I froze. There was only one possible reason for this, and I knew what I was going to hear before it was even said.
“I’m going out.”

I offered an umbrella to keep the sun away from Mr. Morgan’s more delicate tumors, but he merely spat at the suggestion. “Speed,” he admonished. “Speed is the thing. Speed. We must move faster, Leonard! SPEED!”
I drove faster, as much as I could. Mr. Morgan insisted upon taking his most recently-purchased automotive, trusting only those cars he had handpicked, and the Model T was no longer what it had once been, despite the vacuum in which it had been sealed since the day it was produced by Mr. Ford himself.
“Newfangled,” muttered Mr. Morgan, “but it’ll have to do. Are all the horses still dead?”
“The cloning didn’t take, sir.”
“Balderdash,” he grumped. And spat. I’d brought his travel spittoon, but he was still too nervous to keep his mind on small matters such as aim, and the floor of the car was already awash in purple-yellow slime.

Eventually, in between spits, enough directions were given for me to reach the home of our mysterious adversary, the “he” who had “turned them down,” ‘them’ now not only encompassing them who listened to the red book but all of our most lucrative and potent of contacts.
I braced myself and rang the doorbell. It went ding-dong.
Thirty seconds later I rang it again, pushing the button just as approaching footsteps appeared, which made me feel a little foolish and stupid.
The door opened and I was confronted with a woman. Astoundingly enough she had no weapons that I was capable of detecting, or even more astoundingly, she had no weapons whatsoever. “Hello?”
I cleared my throat. “I am Leonard. Mr. Morgan would like to speak to the occupant of this home.”
She glanced behind me. Mr. Morgan was securely fastened to her walk by my firm left hand, and was busy coughing on her (rather inferior) tulips. “I’m sorry?”
“NED!” shouted Mr. Morgan, then bent double with wheezing at the effort for nearly a minute. “Ned,” he whispered as I thumped his back gently. “Need to speak to Ned.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Has he done something wrong?”
“Hah!” said Mr. Morgan. “Hah! Oh, he has, but I’ll deal him fair for it. I’ll pay his price. Don’t you worry, I’m fair. Even if it’s mine to begin with.”
For some reason, the woman chose to look at me at this point. Against all discretion. I reciprocated the disrespect to Mr. Morgan’s person with a tiny nod, and she visibly relaxed.
“Well, all right then. But only for a few minutes. It’s his bedtime soon.”

It was a journey of a thousand miles in two dozen feet. The linoleum front hall. The five-step woolly-carpet staircase. The tiny bathroom smelling strongly of cheap shampoo. And halfway down the hall, the most disrespectful part of the hall, the little room with blue paint that was just slightly too bright to be comfortable to the eyes.
In this room, on an obnoxiously-coloured bed, lay Ned. He was ignoring us in favour of a video game.
I cleared my throat. “’Ned’?”
He looked up. “Mr. Morgan would like to-“
“GIVE IT BACK YOU LITTLE BASTARD!” said Mr. Morgan, and he jumped at his throat.
I was surprised, but Mr. Morgan in full flight had little in the way of momentum, and I was able to intercept him yards from the boy. “I’m sorry, sir. Ned, Mr. Morgan would like to speak to you –” and here my speech became indistinct as Mr. Morgan’s elbow implanted itself in my mouth “-with regards to a proposed offer of his.”
Ned glared back at us, un-intimidated. Perhaps this confidence was at least half-warranted; Mr. Morgan’s last fight had been before the lad’s grandparents had been born, and it had taken place against a recalcitrant piece of rib-eye. “I told him so online, it’s mine fair and square.”
“Maybe so,” I replied, “but Mr. Morgan very much wishes it back.”
“You’re DAMNED RIGHT!” he shouted.
Ned drummed his heels on his bed in that instinctively annoying way that children have of existing. “Well? Isn’t he going to say it then?”
I blinked – it was difficult for me nowadays, but the reflex is still buried there, and sufficient surprise can re-activate it. “Say what?”
Ned crossed his arms. “He knows what he has to say.”
“NEVER, you RAT-EATING son of a FLEA!” screeched Mr. Morgan. “Never! You heard me? Never, ever, never ever! You heard me? You hear me again! NO!”
I winced as the spittle struck my stubble. “Sir? May I offer an opinion?” I took the liberty of interpreting Mr. Morgan’s huffing, wheezing silence as ‘yes’ and plunged ahead heedlessly. “You have already been willing to offer anything and everything at once to Ned, sir. Is it so much to say what he asks?”
“… It’s the principle of the thing,” he muttered at length. And then he coughed. “The principle.”
“Yes, sir. But since when have you ever done anything but scoff at those?”
There was a long moment as the universe ground its way through the head of Mr. Morgan, and reality slowly had it out with him. It was a close fight, but the winner was certain.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Please.”
Ned cupped a hand to his ear. “Caaaaan’t heeeeeaaar yooooouuuuuu…..” he sing-sang in that awful prepubescent whine.
“PLEASE!” shouted Mr. Morgan. “Please plase plose, pretty please with please on top, PLEASE give it back! PLEASE GIVE IT BACK.”
Ned sighed and bounced off his bed. Standing bolt upright in bare feet, he was exactly the same height as Mr. Morgan. “Fiiiiine,” he said. He stepped foreward, one, two, three steps. A yard away from Mr. Morgan.
“Honk,” he said, holding his hand in front of his face. “Gotcher nose.” A thumb was clutched between forefinger and middle. “Want it back?”
Mr. Morgan was a beaten man. “Please,” he whispered.
Ned grinned – a big, happy, cheerful grin of pure glee, the likes of which I’d forgotten after who-knew-how-many-years. “Boop,” he said. And he flicked his hand and snip-snapped his fingers.
Mr. Morgan sagged, and then straightened. Ten thousand pounds seemed to have dropped off his back. “Is our business concluded?” he asked.
“What do you say?” said Ned.
Mr. Morgan looked at the wall above the child’s head.
“What do you saaaaay?” warbled Ned.
“Thank. You.” said Mr. Morgan, each word slamming down like a tombstone.
“Yoooou’re welcome,” said Ned, with a flourish. “See ya.”
Mr. Morgan nearly tripped over the woolly carpet in his rush to be gone for home.

Mr. Morgan was quiet on the drive home, and quieter still as I carried him up the cathedral aisle to his office chair.
“Leonard?” he said as I placed him gently into its black soul-velvet embrace.
“Yes, sir?”
His palsied fingers stroked gently over tanned Velociraptor-skin armrests, the finest – and only – in the world. “Do you think… that was a fair deal?”
I shrugged. “It is not for me to say such things, sir. I am but a simple assistant and accountant. High finance is too rare and fine a thing for me to understand.”
“Right,” said Mr. Morgan. He stared up at the murals above his head. “Right.” He banged his fist on his hip, bruising both. “Right! Now get out of my sight! It’s been a very difficult day for me just now!”
“Yes, sir.”
The mirrored halls are vast, and as I mentioned before, my eyelids do not close readily. I can thus say with utmost certainty that no deliberate snooping occurred as I left my employer’s office, which those same mirrors showed behind me in the second before the door closed.
He was, with great delicacy, feeling his nose with both hands.

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