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An Uncertain Future- Chapter 17.1


I set out the following day to meet Mr. Cortanza at his appointment. After dressing, I emerge from my room, looking to my left to see if my neighbors might be repeating any of their….concerning interactions. Hm, this appears to not be the case as there is no sign of suspicious activity, no sounds of conflict and the hallway remains empty and tranquil. Exiting the Hotel Antwerp, the welcoming, European-style hotel in which I am lodged, I make for the great glass elevator up to the third level. I say, “European-style”, specifically as the simply ascetics of a place like the Hotel Antwerp make me feel right as home. You Yankees often take for granted elevators which accommodate more than two to three persons, as well as your boundless supplies of free toilet paper. While some may question my preferences, I’d take a refreshing wash at the bidet over clogging a toilet with shit-stained paper any day. !
! But toilet humor aside, there are many charms to which I’ve come to appreciate about this country. The buildings are always bigger, newer, and have that luscious sense of progress, whereas even new or refurnished buildings in Europe tend to keep that archaic air about them. Part of this, I think, has to do with the traditional, European mindset, although, I do give my own people more credit in that the English are more willing to spark an innovative flare when it comes to architectural and visual aspects where many other countries are hesitant to do so. Yet, I think another aspect of this overriding traditionalism is the simple, unchanging factor that has kept Europeans fighting each other for centuries: living space. It’s small wonder that Hitler set out to find such lebensraum for his ‘master race’ through bloodshed, since, in Europe, one truly has to fight for that sort of thing. This is not true in America, although, I am sure the families living in one-room hovels in the poorer parts of cities like these will certainly disagree with me. Yet, open and private land is a tradition that has forever sealed itself within the mindset of Yankees and North Americans in general I think, whereas we Brits and Europeans have history that compels us to accept a certain, collective and compressive lifestyle. After all, when Americans ran out of space on the ground, they were unwilling to alter such a profound aspect of personal destiny and self- determination as owning land, and so literally expanded upward, years before the rest of the world deemed it possible and practical.!
! Now, if it sounds like I’m quoting a newspaper article here, I can assure you that, yes, this is the case. I managed to swipe a copy of the Atlantic Daily onto my holophone on the way out, and, whilst riding this elevator, have been enwrapped in an article titled:! ! A Tale of Two Cities: The Architecture of New York & London

Emerging from the elevator with the multitude of other workers returning from their lunch breaks, I move about with the slightest amount of caution and perceptiveness. Caution directed towards those unionist ruffians from the night before, and perceptiveness mainly to, perhaps, find my pursuer from the same night. In both cases, I do my best to appear erect and commonplace, even though my shoulder is hurting the living hell out of me. The painkillers I took this morning were able to limit the pain to bearably uncomfortable. It is a shame that medicine in this day and age has not come far enough to displacing nature’s most potent painkiller, alcohol. And while the

seven-credit flask of whiskey, priced so low as to almost be complimentary at the hotel, in my pocket is tempting, I feel that I might get too many swigs in before I’m able to be taken seriously at this interview. With a man as tight-assed as Cortanza here, I should prefer to be upright and sober with him. Searching the street in front of me, I find no hint of the thugs in the green uniforms I’d encountered yesterday. As I look in the faces of those around me, the commonplace interactions and unresponsive eyes tell me that, to everyone here, every day of work goes by with little to no knowledge of what thugs like Stanowitz and his lot are allowed to do when the whistle blows to go home. I wonder if they’d even care if they knew it. !

! I proceed through to the hulking structure of Cortanza Industries and find a calligraphic ‘C’ staring at me from across the street, a crowd of workers gathered beneath. I think of a crowd of righteous souls awaiting St. Peter at the Heavenly Gates when I see them, instead of a mass of brown-uniformed workers perhaps wishing they’d have gotten one more coffee in before lunch ended. Around the corner was my destination, the more, if you will, white-collar section of Cortanza’s company. Separate from the industrial complex, the office buildings, while newer, are still very much apart of the mills, since they too are made of the definitive Cortasteel, off setting the general black iron and brick tones of the third level. Dare I say a diamond in the ruff? Hm, perhaps not.!

! Entering the main office, I am directed by a young man standing over the beautifully-wrought Cortanza Industries logo on the floor to an elevator up to the third level of the building. On this floor is nothing more than the entrance to a great, glass bridge that stands over a river, yes a river, of molten metal, with the entrance yard visible to the left and several more molten rivers to the right, channeling around the border of the factory itself. This massive complex, I am told, is actually one of six on this level. You Yankees indeed appreciate your open land, even if you have to manufacture it yourself. !
! The bridge ends with the entrance to another elevator which, I am told, will lead to Cortanza’s office at the very top. The machine ascends the massive structure, affording a clear view of an assembly line producing bars of molten metal. I ask the old conductor, who is present solely in this elevator, exactly what goes on here.!
! “This factory”, he replies in an Eastern European accent, “is where alloy of Cortasteel is made into bars and then inventory taken at office building across the bridge. I want, um, 25% of Cortasteel produced here is sold to other companies in the city, the rest goes to the five other factories.”!

!  “And just what do the other factories do?”, I continue.!

!  “Factories 3 and 4”, he explains, in imperfect English, “melt the bars into parts for androids, care frames, and other things. Factory 5 assemble all of pieces together.”!

!  “And Factory 6?”!

!  “Well”, he suddenly appears hesitant, “I am not entirely sure. I think it is extra factory that does what we do here. I work here for thirty years, so I don’t know.”!

! “You’ve worked here for thirty years. That seems peculiar that you wouldn’t at least hear what Factory 6 does”, I pry.!

!  “No”, he rebuffs,”I only work here. In this factory number 1. So, I do not know.”!

!  “I see”, I conclude.!

!  The elevator reaches the twentieth floor fairly quick, as I could imagine.!

! “Twentieth Floor”, the conductor announces, “The Boss’ Office”, and gestures for me to enter.!

!  I go to tip the man, by force of habit I suppose, but he laughs and waves it away.!

!  “Thank you, but I make a decent wage”, he assures me, “I am only here because this elevator is not simple to operate. And, I think Boss likes me as conversation for guests.”!

!  I smile back at him, and turn to leave, when I hear,! !

!  “I should tell you though. Boss NEVER has visitors or other people in his office since ten years. Accept his son a few times.”!

!  “And, what do you think of him?”, I ask, “the son I mean.”!

!  He shrugs, smile bitterly, and utters, “Osioł!”, before the door closes.!

!  This floor appears to be the smallest of any other. There’s a reception area with a desk in front of a giant, wooden door, only, no receptionist. In fact, the door appears to have been left slightly ajar. No presence of anyone anywhere, in fact. Nor are there any lights aside from the window. I enter the door, and I wonder if Cortanza himself will even be in there.!
! Oh, and ‘osioł’, pronounced ‘ó-shöwl’,means, ‘jackass’, in Polish.!

! I issue two knocks on the door, to no answer. I decide then to enter, thinking that he’d left the door open for a reason. The office itself is in stark contrast to the eerie decay and quiet of the area just outside. It’s lit by one of those curious bars of light, this one yellow, not white. The walls are lined with various plaques, degrees, and awards attributed to Mr. Cortanza, each frame kept perfectly free of dust. The far wall is all windows, affording an expansive view of both the inside of this factory and the several others lining the background. Looking out of the window is the tall, aged, once-mighty figure of the man who built the new world, as the article in the Atlantic Daily charitably described. He wore an aged, rust-colored with a dark red stripe down each side, complimented, barely, by a dark gold tie. His eyes might have looked tired if I couldn’t perceive a virulent sense of longing in his hunching figure. !

! Noticing me, he immediately straightens, and he issues me a businessman’s handshake. It’s very sure, and practiced, I think to myself He sits down behind his perfectly-organized Cortasteel desk, and he gestures for me to take one of the metal chairs with the leather seat and rounded back.!

! “So”, he begins, sitting himself, “where do I start? I was born in dirt poor village in Tuscany. I honestly don’t have much to recall of my youth save a constant feeling of inescapable inadequacy. My father was a cobbler and my mother worked at home. Although, when I say that my father was a cobbler, I mean that he did maintenance and apprenticed beneath a master shoemaker. He was not one himself. He and my mother had had children very young. The man was twenty seven years old my the time I was eight. The only thing I really remember of him was that he was ever occupied and ever sad. My mother, you see, was what you would call a martinet….”!

! I decide to let the old man go on for a little while, seeing as he’s bound on a bit of a nostalgic tangent. This information, while irrelevant to the task at hand, may prove purposeful.!
! “I am not entirely sure if she was actually in love with him at one time. All I remember is that when other husbands and wives visited and remarked how pitiful,

sorry a person my father was, my mother would nod and reply spitefully, ‘he gave me a son. That’s all I wanted, really.’ She didn’t give many reasons to be cared for, nor did I look for any. I used to hate her for manipulating my father, but, then I realized something.”!

! He gets up at this point, pacing around the room, his seeming to dart Italian fire with every hand gesture. His brown eyes stare off excitedly.!
! “She gave off the appearance of control, when in reality, she was just as trapped as my father. She played off like she could give so much to me and my father. !

! ‘I could have any man I want!’, she used to say all the time, ‘someone richer, younger, taller, especially taller. It is out of the kindness of my HEART that I stay with you, Cortanza!’ “!

!  At this point, he pauses, leaning over his desk, his eyes settled.!

!  “Do you know what Cortanza means in Spanish, Mr. Saint.”!

!  I thought about it for a moment. I had known Italian at a certain point, or at least could make some kind of connection using Spanish, but that word escaped me.!

! “It is an addition to the word ‘corta’ “, he answers, “which means, ‘short’. Now, to my mother, whose own mother was a Spaniard, she equated this to the short in both physical and societal stature, and, frankly, in manhood as well. For the longest time, I believed that about myself too. I was no different than him. Granted I was taller, but, I wasn’t remarkably handsome, balding by age twenty, and charisma was a foreign term to me.”!

!  He then reclaims his seat, his dramatic outburst dissipated.!

!  “However”, he says, “by the time I was an adult, still living with my parents, not going anywhere. I think this was the year 2021, so two decades of my life had been wasted at that point. I was in a Spanish class, and was, humorously, made aware that ‘corta’ mean ‘short in duration’, so short time, short period, even short temper, the truth was all around less belittling than I had been lead to believe. All my life, I had been lead to believe that I was weak, that I needed people above me to hold my hand, whether it be my mother, my teachers, the priest, the politician. And suddenly!”!

!  He slams a fist on the table.!

!  “I realized that I could’ve said, ‘Fuck you!’, and disowned them all at any time. I had the freedom, the liberty…the ability…to do all of that, yet, I lacked the will. So, you see…control. That is the essence of it. Making people believe that there are forces they can neither see nor touch that force them to accept their meager positions in life. You, see, Mr. Saint, there are three types of people in the world: those who accept being controlled, and those, like my mother, who feel they cannot control aspects of their lives, and seek to control and manipulate others, in order to keep up the facade. Then, there is the third group, the faces, as Ayn put it, ‘without guilt, nor fear, nor shame’.”!

! I should’ve foreseen, or rather, feared an Ayn Rand devotee when I first met him. At this point, he stands up again, and, frankly, looks quite powerful.!

!  “I know to which group I belong. What about you, Mr. Saint?”!

!  I give him no answer. He doesn’t look for one, but curtly turns his back to me, and faces the window. He rests his head on his right arm, and stares out into the industrial wilderness.!

! “So, in short, I left Italia, and made my way here. I started small, in near squallor, for those first years until 2034, when I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in

Pittsburgh, and got my first post as branch administrator for British Petroleum. I remember how my bosses said I had the potential to go to far in the oil industry, and I could be looking at CEO in eight years.”!

!  He turns back to me, a sad smile on him.!

!  “And all I had to do, was to keep sucking a lot of dick, wiping a lot of ass, and doing what I was told. But, I refused that life. I refused to believe that American capitalism had degenerated into an opportunistic slaughterhouse where only those who simply suck up to the bosses, losing themselves as sheep sacrificed during the next oil spill or sex scandal. So, I saved up my money, bought a significant amount of shares, and then sold them when the value was high, and allowed myself a decent living.”!

! He casually returns to his chair. Suddenly, two holowatches start beeping, both his and mine. He quickly silences his, while, checking mine, I find a text from Sage.!
! “Listen, Rich. I really should have told you this sooner, but, the real reason Ezio Cortanza has been disgraced is…”!

!  The next text comes almost immediately,!

!  “He’s been accused of murder in the past”.! ! ! !

!  I turn the watch off, throwing on my best poker face, and I meet his hard stare.!

!  “It’s nothing, Mr. Cortanza”, I assure him, “now, could you, perhaps, proceed to your more current history, perhaps?”!

!  “What do you mean?”!

!  “Well, you understand why I am here.”!

!  “Please, Mr. Saint”, he firmly replies, “if you’re going to speak with me, I’d like you to get right to the point as to what you want. Or else I’m more than obliged to keep you here for hours listening to an old man ramble on about his life story.”!

! “Very well”, I relent, trying to keep my tone competitively firm, but low,“I want to know your connections with The Forgotten.”!
! “Alright then”, he answers, unusually prompt, “now, as you may know, I have reinvented myself many times in my thirty-five-year career. Shortly after I left BP, legislation was passed limiting the power of the oil companies to manipulate the price of gasoline as the supply of oil either dried up or became increasingly nationalized with the rise of democratic nation states in nations like Iran, Egypt, and Jordan. The gargantuan oil industry collapsed in 2044, and since most of the wealthy lacked the skills to properly adjust to the changing market, the effects caused most entrepreneurs, like myself, to return to college and enter new fields. Those days, I must admit, were tough. It’s why you see cars running on hydrogen cells, colonies on Mars, online-compatible, metal- backed credits replacing dollars, and an overall boom in the business of reshaping the world. Into that world came my masterpiece, the metal of modern civilization, the cunning achievement that would restructure the world as we know it: Neo-bronze, more commonly known as Cortasteel.”!
! I go to remind him that this has little to do with what I’ve asked, but he hold his hand up, assuring me that he’ll get there.!

!  “This all has it’s relevance, Mr. Saint, don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten-“!

!  But, he is cut off suddenly by a man bursting through his door. He appears to be in his twenties, with tanned skin, spiked black hair and, wait! This is the man a door down from me in the hotel. The rich scumbag berating his wife the other night. What the hell’s he doing here?!

! “You’re supposed to call me beforehand, Pietro”, Cortanza evenly tells the youth, “because as you can see, I’m with a client.”!

!  Pietro takes a look to me, then removes his sunglasses in realization.!

!  “Hey, I remember you”, he says with a punkish tone, “you’re my neighbor at the Antwerp.”!

!  “Why yes”, I reply, feigning surprise, “I suppose I am.”!

!  “Hey, don’t worry about it, Dad. He’s a friend of mine. Listen, I need some money.”!

! Dad!? DAD!? This misogynistic little twat, with ugly-smelling body spray, is Cortanza’s son? Actually, from what Sage has told me, he certainly fits.!
! “I gave you five hundred credits, yesterday”, Cortanza replies, crossing his arms, “what happened to them?”!
! “Oh it’s Lynn”, Pietro answers, “she keeps asking me to buy her stuff. Come on, you know how high maintenance women are.”!
! “Actually, I don’t”, Cortanza fences, “the only jewelry your mother asked me for was a chain bracelet made out of Cortasteel10”.!
! “Well”, Pietro snobs, “so Eva was a less sophisticated type. Lynn comes from a richer family, so she’s used to nicer things.”!

!  What a bloody insult! Is he just going to take that?!

!  “Very well”, Cortanza replies, reaching into his wallet while Pietro holds out his hand impatiently. Are you fucking kidding me!? What kind of man lets his son insult his dead wife like that?!

! The boy snatches a single, gold credit from Cortanza’s hand, the latter looking dismissively passive. !
! Appeased, Pietro tips back his sunglasses, inserts the credit into his holophone, and exits, slamming the door stubbornly behind him.!

!  “My apologies, Mr. Saint”, Cortanza reverts, “he is my son, you know.”!

!  “Of course, of course”, I reply, sarcastically, “after all, even the dogs need to be fed, or else they’ll never shut up until the blinking morning. Hm.”!

!  But, at this, Cortanza’s face appears offended.!

!  “Now, I won’t have you insult my son, Mr. Saint.”!

!  “He spent five hundred credits in one night”, I press him, “insulted your wife right in front of you and, might I add, doesn’t treat his own very nicely either.”!

! “They aren’t married”, Cortanza replies curtly, avoiding eye contact, “and in case you haven’t noticed, the boy lost his mother at a very young age. The least I can do is make sure nothing else piles on him.”!

!  What is happening to this man?!

!  “Mr. Cortanza”!

!  No response. No eye contact.!

!  “Mr. Cortanza”, I continue, more firm, “a minute ago, you would have me believe that there isn’t a soul on this Earth who is able to order you about anymore. Well, I just saw an irresponsible boy talk back to his father, whom, dare I say, has been far to CHARITABLE with him.”!

! Cortanza gets up, walking, very slow, and almost crippled, to the window. !

10 Again, another nod to Atlas Shrugged.

!  “It is a crime”, he says after a depressing pause, “to love my wife?”!

!  “No”, I reply firmly, “but what does that mean?”!

!  He runs a nervous hand through his thinning hair, and turns back to me.!

!  “I met Eva at the Tokyo World’s Fair in 2045. It was the year Adam Singleton and Stephanie Yeun unveiled the first, realistic design for the aerocar. I had been in the process of patenting Cortasteel, and I was talking to them about the potential my lighter, durable material might have as opposed to aluminum. I turned around to Hakura’s exhibition, where he unveiled the first, self-learning android. But that was not what caught my eye. Instead, seated in between a chair of old, unappealing benefactors sat a woman. Her skin was a glowing, amber hue, her flowing brown hair curled just below her perfectly-sloped jaw, and her body, breathtaking. From the sensual, shapely legs folded in a way that compelled me to see in between them to the beautiful, red lips, which gave me an idea of what I’d find there. Her eyes, a piercing hue, appeared transfixed, at all times, on what she wanted most. So, I was surprised, when, I found her eyes on me. !

! She did not smile, for that would only denote charitable pity or base cordiality. Nor did my lips curl in such a way, but my eyes merely met hers, and an insatiable lust followed with several, secret vacations, one of which, rather unexpectedly, produced Pietro.”!
! He pauses again. Then, without asking, takes out a cigarette, and lights it, indoors.!
! After a puff, “You see, I lied. It was Eva, a proud Andalucian, who told me what my name actually meant. I never really had some such epiphanies in my life, I just tell that to interviewers because it sounds good on camera. My life and achievements did not start with Eva, but my spirit truly awakened that day. She loved me, and was ever devoted to me, and together we truly conquered the world.!
! “And, just like that, she was dead. Now, I’m left with nothing. Nothing, except, the bitter memory of what we had. So now, you see…I, Mr. Saint, am, by all respects, worn out slag who ought to have been thrown out years ago. Pietro, you see, reminds of what happens when I care only for my own successes, my own gains. I end up with a wife dead, a son who hates me, public disgrace at every turn, and, now, a contract to produce for a mass murderer.”!

!  In the midst of passion and sadness is the truest man seen. !

!  “So, Mr. Saint”, he says, coming back to his desk, exhaling smoke, “what do you say to that?”!

! In the end, I have come to only one conclusion. I do not like this man’s character, really. I think he’d be the type that would buy out a struggling family business and fire all the workers without a drop of remorse. He would make deals with gunrunners who massacred civilians on a typical Tuesday and circumvent any government legislation designed to stop him. There’s a million, rich, unapologetic elitists like this man throughout history. I suppose, however, that if there’s a vice the rich permit themselves to have, it’s misery. The other vices come with the business.!

!  I sigh, breathing in his smoke. Then,!

!  “Believing in illusions”, I state, “is one means of control. Not believing in yourself, is another.”!

! Well, that doesn’t seem to have satisfied him at all. He angrily crushes his cigarette into the ash tray.!
! “I’ve heard enough”, he says, trying to control himself, his eye blaring mad, “get out of here.”!
! We exchange a long, frustrated stare until I choose to yield. I exit the office and go back into the abandoned reception area. Wishing to avoid human contact, I decide to find a stairwell, only to find that by 2069, stairs have become obselete, the only stair case being a claustrophobic passage with a conveyor belt sloping down to the grown floor. At first, I find this to be very unsafe and annoying, until I step on and find that my shoes are fused to the floor somehow. !

!  Emerging from the building, I stride down the sidewalk, deeply frustrated.!

!  “Insufferable man!”, I exclaim, putting one of my own cigarettes in between my lips.!

!  “Insufferable bastard!”, I correct as I light it. !

!  I get to the front of the building, when a man comes into view, leaning on the wall near the door. By the smell in the air, I take that it’s Pietro.!

!  “How’s it going, neighbor?”, he sneers, extending the last word.!

!  “Can I help you, Mr. Cortanza?”!

!  “Call me Pietro, neighbor”, he smiles falsely, “mind if I have steal a cigarette off ya?”!

!  I oblige only by principal. He then gestures for me to light it. I, by this time, had exhausted my first, and went on to my second. !

!  “So”, he sneers again, “just what did you and my Dad talk about, neighbor?”!

!  Exhaling, I reply, “I just wanted to get to know Ezio Cortanza.”!

!  “Don’t give me that shit”, he says, smiling venomously, “I know just who YOU are.”!

!  “Oh, do you?”, I reply. There’s no way he knows I’m a Guardian.!

!  “Yeah”, he answers, pacing around me like a shark, “I’ve seen guys wearing that uniform in here before. You’re some special division of Interpol or something, right?”!

!  “And just why is that information I’m obliged to give?” !

!  “Well, neighbor, I think it’s obvious. There’s been rumors about my Dad’s ties to The Forgotten. Maybe he’s telling you something that I, um, am not so privy to. I’m sure we could, uh, talk about you sharing some of that info.”!

! He covertly pulls the same credit out which had been given to him by his father. Clever bastard. As soon as he saw me, that was his aim.”!
! “As I said before”, I reply, playfully sincere, “all we discussed was your father’s riveting life story. Nothing more.”!

!  “Come on, neighbor, lemme take you out for a drink. Whaddya like?”!

!  Feeling the need to keep up the charade, I answer, “Well, Martian Dust!

isn’t all that bad.”!

! “Martian Dust!?”, he exclaims, “fuck that shit! I’ll buy you the most expensive British beer you can have, my boy. Or, if you’re keener on the booty, there’s plenty of clubs willing to oblige. Ever heard of the Alley Cat?”!
! “Yes, I have”, I reply, suddenly done with this game, “but I think I’ll pass. Good day, Pietro.”!
! “Oh, now wait a minute”, he diverts, holding me back.!

! “I really didn’t wanna do this”, he says with farcical dismay, “but, I’m gonna need whatever you told my father, right now.”!

!  “I imagine that such information would go for a lot of money.”!

!  “Yeah, maybe”, he replies, feigning naiveté,”I mean, that is, if you play ball.”!

!  “Very well, Pietro”, I sarcastically reply, “I suppose there’s no use hiding it from you. Your father’s writing you out of the will.”!

! He laughs, then moves his taller frame in front of me, very unthreateningly, however.!

!  “You wanna take his side? Okay then. Lemme just let you know what you’re in for.”!

!  He goes to access his holowatch, and flips through it for a time. At this point, my esteem for both father and son are at an all time low, the latter trying my patience at a far greater rate. A holographic screen projects from his wrist, revealing several windows of mixed articles, and the words ‘Cortanza’, and ‘greed’, and, ‘buyout’, and, ‘outrage’ repeat themselves. !

! “This one”, Pietro says, expanding the top-left window, “tells about a union lawsuit against my dear father for an employee whose wages were lowered after he deemed, quote, “incapable”. This happened two years ago, and Ezio lost the case.”!

!  He then moves his unclean nails against the screen, expanding an article further down.!

!  “This one’s still pending”, he relates, “about a creditor for Cortasteel who remained in debt until the day she died at the age of ninety-seven. She was a small- time car parts manufacturer. Doctors say stress was a key factor in her weakened heart. And when she died, he forced her son to pay off the remaining credit for her. Not once did it even enter my father’s mind to wipe the slate clean.”!

!  He opens up yet another article, closer to the center.!

!  “This one’s interesting”, he sneers, “a five-generation, family-owned small business in Alabama that manufactured woodcutting axes out of Cortasteel. Instead of giving them his metal at a fair price, Ezio bought out the small business, then ran it into the ground, and promptly fired all the workers, most of whom were family of the original owners, and liquidated the business. Do you see what I’m getting at, Mr. Saint? There’s a certain concept called business ethics, yet they’re as foreign to Ezio as, frankly, modern American culture.”!

! “And so, you’re some kind of redeeming figure, I am to presume?”, I respond curtly, even though what I’ve seen certainly leaves a mark.!
! He shrugs at this. Then, speaking as though he were crusading against the impossible, “I am merely trying to redistribute the money my father hoards for himself, as well as his precious metal which he won’t share with anyone. He’s openly opposed government action, including a bill that was passed specifically to hinder his ability to hold a monopoly over his metal. The least I can do is try to convince people that he does not like having friends, nor is he a good person in the slightest, cuz he’ll screw you over any chance you get. Trust me, I know. He promised at one time that I’d inherit his company. Promised me! Who is he to deny that just because I have a different view of money and what to spend it on than he does!? What gives him the right!?”!
! I almost feel like he’s acting out an impassioned monologue in a movie. And, I suppose, kids like these live their lives as if they are movies.!

! “Forgive me, Mr. Saint”, he apologizes, but I can tell he isn’t sorry, “I just get so, pumped up when talking about this. I feel very strongly about it. Give me a minute.”!
! While he catches his pitiful breath, I throw out my used up cigarette, my eyes are drawn behind him to an alleyway about a meter away. Isn’t that a convenient place for an ambush, I think to myself. Was that a head peeking out I just saw? I do believe it was. You stupid bastard. Does he really think he can get people to ambush me?!
! I’m brought out of my reverie to find Pietro clinging desperately to my coat, which, frankly, he needs to stop doing right fucking now.!
! “So, Mr. Saint”, he says between breathes, “with…everything…I’ve told you-and heed those words!-what can you tell me about…what you and my father were talking about? Please, sir, for the good of everything!”!
! Very calmly, I seize his hands, look him in the eyes, and says, “Nothing”, and shove him past me.!
! I get to the alley, and turn around to say, “and another thing. If you think that you could surprise me with these little shits hanging around the corner, you’ve another thing-“!
! ‘Coming’, is what I want to say, but only, I don’t see any assailants. Just a familiar lot sporting green uniforms and several bruises taking off in the opposite direction.!

!  This brings a smug smile to my face, and a look of horror to Pietro’s.!

!  “Stanowitz!”, he screams, “what the fuck are you doing!?”!

!  Our good friend Stanowitz turns around just enough to say, “Screw you, Pietro! You have no idea who that guy is! I’d run for your own sake!”!

!  I casually light another cigarette as Pietro promptly seizes me by the collar.!

!  “Just who the hell are you!?”!

!  I always find it hilarious when bigger folks try to grab me collar and look tough. They rarely know whom they’re actually dealing with. I blow a decent amount of smoke back in his face, causing him to release me. !

!  Dusting off my coat, I reply,”someone you never, ever, want to mess with. So fuck off!”!

!  “You don’t know him”, Pietro calls after me, “that man is incapable of love, care, or feeling anything, really. Trust me, I know!”!

! I depart from his stinking presence. It then occurs to me I’ll be only a few doors down from this man. He’d either be very bold, or more likely, very stupid to try anything t!onight.!

! As it turns out, the man is very, very stupid. His room is quiet for about seven hours, when, at about ten, he reenters. The room between is, thankfully, unoccupied, thus I am able to view both the movements of him and his beleaguered girlfriend via my trusty gadgets. Turning them on, I come to see that the room in between us is, in fact, the left side of the suite in which Pietro is staying. At first, I wonder exactly what he uses this for, yet, when he walks in bringing to other figures, and promptly takes them into this room, performing a variety of animal-like movements, I can determine that he’s shagging a couple of callgirls. The third figure remains seated in the other room, smoking by her gestures, and sitting for a long time. Changing the vision to highlight machines, I determine that she is watching television. She remains unresponsive for another hour until the callgirls leave. !

! This girl simply lets her man shag other women all he wants, and doesn’t even lift a finger. I know that she’s probably miserable in there. But, what the hell can I do, really? People land themselves in these situations because of their choices in lives, wise and otherwise. In the end, you can’t live your life thinking you can bloody well save everybody. Pietro reenters the room with the girl, Lynn as I recall, and he begins again his explosive tirade, given his gestures. Still, I’d very much like to know what he’s saying.!

! Programming the little drone to find the nearest other humans, I open the window and release it as if it were a fledgling. It proceeds to their window, and the conversation gradually comes through.!
! “I’m getting so tired of your shit, Lynn!”, he barks, sounding more like a child than a fearful man.!

! “All you ever do is sit there, kills you damn lungs, watch T.V., and spend my money. That’s honestly all you’re ever good for. You don’t wanna go out, you don’t wanna screw me or any of the hookers, male and female, that I offer you! In fact, when’s the last time you’ve even eaten!?”!

!  He pauses, waiting for a response that never comes.!

!  “Where’s you confidence?”, he piles on, “where’s you sense of womanhood? You constantly forget to put on makeup, you never take care of your hair, which always smells like cigarettes by the way. You refuse to take care of yourself, and when I offer you implants, plastic surgery, jewelry, you say, that you don’t want it. Well, what do you want then, Lynn!? What do you fucking want!?”!

! But, she remains silent. Now, this would be the time when Pietro slaps her across the face, initiating domestic abuse in its fullest form. Only, he doesn’t do that.!
! “Damn bitch”, he says, walking out of the room, “why do I even try? You just suck, you know that? Actually, wait, no, you don’t!”!
! He enters the other room, slamming the door behind him. Like I said. At times like these, people ought to be left to the lives their choices afford them. There’s no place for ideals that can’t survive the unpredictability of human life. The bully’s victim turns out to be resentful of others in general, the delinquent in need of reform, reverts instead, and the noble savage turns out to be not quite so noble. Yes, you’re correct in estimating that I’m being cynical and pessimistic, but, when you’ve lived as long as I have, you don’t outright give up on altruism, but you certainly limit your reasons to pursue it. It’s simply not as though I’ll be doing nothing, of course. !

!  “911, what is your emergency?”!

!  “Evening miss”, I begin, “I’d like to report domestic abuse.”!

!  “Okay, sir, and what is your location?”!

!  “The Hotel Antwerp, Room 1726.”!

!  “1726”, she repeats with a sigh,”the Cortanza suite?”

!  “Yes that’s right. How did you-“!

!  “We’ll send someone up right away. Thank you for calling, sir”.!

!  Has there been more than one reported incident in here? Is this just the nth time this has played out? !

! It takes the bobbies eight minutes, no more, to come knocking at Cortanza’s door. I the probe to listen in, as me head starts hurting a little after using the x-rays.! ! “Mr. Cortanza”, a burly-sounding copper begins, “Mr. Cortanza!”!

!  I hear a door open and then, “Evening, officers. What seems to be the problem?”!

!  “Mr. Cortanza, we’ve received a report of domestic abuse.”!

!  “Hmm, you officers got a warrant?”!

!  “We’re enacting the right of Due Suspicion according to Clause 18 of the International Law Enforcement Agreement of 2067.”!

! Due Suspicion? What the fuck is he on about? Bobbies have the power to circumvent a warrant now?!

!  “On what grounds?”, I hear Pietro protest.!

!  “Personal history”, the officer replies, “now may we enter.”!

!  “Well, alright. If you simply must come in.”!

!  I hear shuffling, and the closing of a door.!

!  “Evening miss”, I hear the other, female-sounding officer greet. She, too, is met with no response.! !

!  “Don’t be insulting honey”, Pietro hisses, “please offer these fine officer a drink.”!

!  “We won’t be having any”, the bigger officer replies, gruffly.!

!  “Oh come on”, Pietro jeers, “I’m sure we’d get along much more swimmingly if you’d take what I’ll offer ya.”!

! “Is that a bribe, Mr. Cortanza?”, the female answers, “because if we even suspect that, we’ll take you straight in. Regardless of who your father is.”!

!  “Hey, I’m cool”, Pietro backs off.!

!  “Check the window Simovic.”!

!  I am momentarily struck by panic as I look to my holowatch in an attempt to keep my probe concealed. Oh, thank God there’s a button that says, ‘Cloak’, on the upper top. Count on ol’ James Redfield to think of just about everything. !

! “Sir, I’m getting something”, the lass states, “its mechanical. It appears there’s a probe of some sort hovering outside the window.”!

!
!
!
!
!
!
me by
! complains.!

!  There’s a pause, in which time, I infer that there are some doubtful glances.!

!  “Come on”, he pleads, “why would I set up a probe to spy on myself?”!

There’s a pause, then movement, then.!
“I can’t see anything”, the officer observes, “is it cloaked.”!
“Possibly”, the other one affirms, “Mr. Cortanza, exactly who’s probe is that?”! “How the hell should I know?”, he replies, defensively. !
“Woah, watch the language there, sir!”, the male officer commands.!
I, meanwhile, don’t know what to do as being figured out this quickly has caught surprise. !
“It’s probably something my dad had set up in order to spy on me!”, Pietro

! “There have been two recorded incidents in the past year, and a lawsuit pending detailing an occasion when you, Mr. Cortanza, recorded yourself having sexual intercourse with two actresses and the daughter of a U.S. senator which were posted online in violation of the Social Networking Slander Clause of the International Law Enforcement Agreement.”!

!  “Now hold on-“,! !

!  “But, on the account of the report of domestic abuse”, the man interrupts, “there is nothing we can, here, prove. Unless, of course, there is any evidence of a struggle

exhibited on either of you. There isn’t any immediate evidence to substantiate that fact. Miss?”!
! Again, there is a pause as he waits for a response. During this time, I see no other choice than to fry the probe, lest it be tracked back to me. Damn. I was starting to like that thing. I press the button titled, “Self Destruct’, to no immediate change in the environment.!

!  “Do you have anything to say in regard to that matter, miss?”!

!  Of course not you stupid cunt. You think she’s going to outright tell you that she’s a victim!? That’s the worst part about it! Bullocks, I shouldn’t have called them at all!!

!  “Okay then”, I hear him say, “Officer Simovic, neutralize the probe.”!

!  “It appears to have disappeared, sir. My guess is that it self-destructed.”!

!  Well it appears nothing escapes these super cops. Except, of course, an actual crime. But, I mustn’t blame them. There’s no evidence to substantiate their claim, so long as Lynn keeps quiet. Poor lass. This is an outrage, however, an inexcusable offensive…it’s simply buggered…it’s simply fucked!!

! Now I understand why Pietro’s truly been able to act this way. He doesn’t slap her, he doesn’t starve her, doesn’t hold out on her, and, from the outside, gives her everything. In friendly conversation, he is probably the victim, the patient boyfriend, the martyr. Nobody ever questions her side of the story even in this day of augmented surveillance and crime stopping, because her wounds don’t show, she doesn’t have any bruises to cover up. She does that herself, automatically, and involuntarily. But why, why? Is she really that drawn into herself, that powerless, that indifferent? That’s not what I say the first night. That night, she looked desperate and scared. But, maybe, that was her one moment of emotion that nobody’s supposed to see.!
! Call me an over-thinker all you wish, but the fact that I perceived that moment, means that I have a duty to consider, and that means that there is enough reason for me to act. Everything I said earlier, is now worth fuck-all! !
! I turn on the x-rays again, and receive a silent picture of how the rest plays out. After a few minutes of conversing away from the ‘lovely couple’, the bobbies pack up and leave. An indefinite period of silence ensues in which there appears to be no yelling. No put-downs. No physical or verbal abuse. I see one figure get up and enter the bed in the other suite, the other settle into bed. I wait an hour or so, and I find both of them seem to stay, for the most part, in one position. Pietro appears to be pouring several shots of something, but, like I said, the definition of this x-ray vision is somewhat cloudy. Nonetheless, I’m quite sure I can infer that he’s getting drunk. Time to act.!
! I open my window, which is about a half meter in length, and visualize my surroundings, checking for an entryway from my room to his via the outside. The windowsills are each very European, in that they afford enough room for a pair of feet to shuffle across. I turn my eyes forward to check for any witnesses. The Antwerp lies on the corner of Giuliani Avenue and Peace Street, the latter a road modestly lit with cars, but not too many, given this hour and the fact that the second level is largely home to tourists. Overhead are the Voss Bridge whose mighty supports were anchored by slopes which ran into two even mightier skyscrapers extending both below and above it. Across the street is one such gargantuan building, yet, the wall facing me lays dark and dormant. Aside from a late night walkers here or there along the rather thin, yet beautifully-decorated Giuliani Avenue below, there appears to be no one.!

! Feet first, my entire body is just able to make it out the window and I am left hanging onto the windowsill. Not very safe, of course, but temporary. I pull myself up and onto my feet, taking care to mind my speed and footing. Gripping the smooth, carved window frame and with steady footing, I shuffle over to my neighbor’s window, and peer inside the room.!

! As I predicted, Pietro is sitting with his back serendipitously turned against the window, pouring several shots of what I recognize to be Martian Dust whiskey.! !
! I won’t need to steel myself for this next part. It’ll be easy. However, it does occur to me at this point that such a precarious stunt would be less life-threatening had I used my new grapnel. Old habits die hard, I suppose. But, this should help me get inside.!
! I can’t quite tell, but the lock appears to be in the center of the window itself. Turning on my technopathic vision, to which I, again, owe much to Jim Redfield, a mechanism indeed glows yellow in the center, concealed quite well. With my left hand to hold me to the window, I point my right hand towards the rooftop, firing the grapnel on my wrist which hooks successfully in place. Now, if I were man a far less subtleties, i.e. someone like Duke Bishop, I’d come crashing through the window ready to pummel this man. However, my approach, in my opinion, will take an air of grace. On my right hand was Jim’s Thief’s Glove, a curious gadget consisting of several, black plates on top and a silver mesh on the inside of the hand. By the wrist are the glove’s buttons for its various modes: cut, burn, lockpick, and hack. I choose the latter, and I thus perceive a green glow about my fingertips. Pressing three fingers to the bottom center of the window, I wait only seconds before hearing a click. At this point, I am able to open the window to its highest extent, just barely enough for me to swing through. !
! Checking inside, Pietro is drunkenly unaware of the sudden draft as he pours himself another shot. I notice for the first time that the tele’s on, and while I can’t tell exactly, it appears to be a hardcore adult film. Despicable. I brace my feet on the windowsill, then climb the rope a little, push back on the wall, and vault right in, a clenching of my fist cutting me free of the line. !
! Pietro, rather comically, is somewhat unaware of my entrance, as he rocks back and forth to the rhythm of a beat only his drunken mind can hear. I’ve been at this moment enough to know the he’s left himself largely unguarded at this point, but may be unpredictable. I remove my old service revolver from my coat, prodding his head with the cold barrel. He swaggers around in his seat very casually. Until he sees the gun, that is.!

!  “Who are you!?”, he shouts frantically,”what the fuck do you want?”!

!  “I saw what you did”, I state, menacingly,”you dirty fuck! And I have deemed your conduct to be unjust.”!

!  “What the fuck are you talking about, man!?”!

!  “Would you like me to put it bluntly, man?”, I offer/threaten, gesturing with my gun to make my point, “you’re in for a world of pain, let’s just say it like that.”!

! His eyes widen at that fact. That’s the last reaction he has before I issue a pistol whip to his head, knocking him out and sending him to the floor. I sit him up against the chair. Wouldn’t want him dying by choking, now, would we. I am suddenly startled by the sound of loud moaning from the television. On the screen, two men are shagging this sultry-looking blonde with a spray tan and a line of butterfly tattoos down her side. While the men are quite animated, the girl appears dead asleep, if not actually dead. And yet,

the fine eyelashes and demure face look somewhat familiar. I turn to the door to see a girl standing there. Then, I turn back to the tele. The same person. !

!  “Oh Jesus, Pietro”, I hear the man on Lynn’s bottom half shout, “you’re girl’s the best.”!

!  “Fuck yeah”, replies the man at her other end. !

!  Disgusted and angry, I raise my gun to Pietro’s face, preparing to fire.!

!  “Don’t kill him!”, I suddenly hear, “please!”!

!  To my shock and awe, the plea comes form Lynn herself.!

!  “I wasn’t going to, until I say that”, I explain, gesturing to the tele, “did you know about that?”!

! Lynn looks to the screen. A sad, tired look crosses her face, and she nods back to me, her eyes downcast and ashamed.!
! “How the hell can you stand that”, I shout, “this man has not only verbally but sexually abused you.”!
! She ignores me as she reaches for a cigarette and shakily light it in her mouth. Her face is becoming more red and her calm is breaking.!
! “And you want me to spare him? Why? So he can cause you more pain? That may be acceptable to you, but not me!”!
! I straighten my arm back at Pietro, my own hand struggling to remain firm, my anger simply overflowing. I don’t even think shooting this man will be enough. Beating him down with the butt of my revolver. Now that’s justice I’d prefer to see. But, I mustn’t be barbaric. !
! “Don’t touch him!”, I hear again. Only this time, when I look up, Lynn has removed a pistol of her own. It’s a strange-looking weapon: a block-pistol with a thin, chrome barrel fined to a point and a small mesh frame over the top. Very futuristic overall, and probably dangerous. She must have gotten it from her bathrobe, the light blue silk parted to reveal a line of butterfly tattoos on her slender body.!
! “You don’t understand”, she says to me, eyes wild, “he’s all I’ve got. Without him, I’m nothing. Just fucking trailer trash that received someone’s kindness. Yeah, alright, he beats me”, her eyes start to become red at this point, as she struggles more and more to retain control, “but you don’t know him. His childhood was a mess, and you wouldn’t believe what he’s had to deal with.”!

!  “That is no excuse”, I state, evenly.!

!  “Oh”, she replies, “what if your dad had killed your own mother!”!

!  There is a pause while I take in what I just heard.!

!  “What”, I finally reply.!

!  “Eva Torres was in the hospital for a critical heart condition. All of the sudden, Ezio pulled her off of life support. The doctor afterwards, came out and said that she was actually making a recovery, and could’ve walked outta there. But, Ezio refused. He’s a bad man for what he did to Pietro. Maybe that doesn’t…exactly…excuse-no, it does. He has all the reason to be angry.”!

!  “You’ve talked extensively about him”, I reply, composing myself, “but what about you?”!

!  “Me?”, she replies with a sad, flashed smile, “screw me, man. I just follow Pietro and his friends, act like a good girl, and he gives me nice things, a place to sleep. He can be sweet sometimes. He really can.”!

! “Do you hear yourself”, I point out, evenly, “you’ve simply let this man burden you with his griefs until your own self-esteem has been all but spent.”!
! Tears begin to well up. In her eyes, not mine, although, I shouldn’t be surprised if they did.! !

! “What I see”, I continue, my voice shaking but a little, “on that screen, is a woman who has been deceived and raped. What I see in front of me, is a woman who has cared so little for her own life, that she no longer lives it. So, you fear for his life, but how about your own?”!

!  I point the gun at her.!

!  “So go on”, I reply, evenly, “either defend yourself, or let me end your suffering.”!

!  You must think rather unfavorably of me now, but allow me to explain. There was a time in this world when human beings were taught that a life of dishonor, suffering, and despair, was not worth living. The philosopher king poisoned himself before living a life of exile, the lover drowned herself before living without her beloved, the warrior prefers to die by his own sword than by the hand of his captors. We have a modern-day fixation on life and preserving life at all costs, even if it means more suffering and pain than the alternative. This old custom merely an ideal that I have not taken out of my ethos. Has anyone in truth, done so entirely? But, don’t worry. I have no intention of killing this woman. I only mean to awaken her spirit. You probably don’t think that this is the best way of doing so. But you aren’t thousands of years old.!

! Back to reality, the woman can no longer control the tears pouring forth form her eyes. Now, both of us are pointing our weapons at each other. Staring down the point of a great and terrible change. She pulls the trigger first. !
! The blast of blue light form her gun smashes the television screen into thousands of pieces, a few white sparks signaling its end.!
! “Dammit!”, she exclaims, throwing away the gun, and falling to her knees, at last unable to hold back all that pent up rage, sadness, and despair. !
! “I’m so stupid”, she laments, “so-so-so stupid. I don’t value my life at all. I’m not even human, cuz I don’t feel anything. You might as well get it over with.”!
! I, of course, won’t be doing that. A relaxing calm passes through my mind, as I look upon one whose spirit has been reawakened. How do I know this? She weeps, you see? As long as we feel, we are human.!
! “No”, say I, “I don’t think I need to anymore. You’ve proven to me that you do care. If you truly didn’t, something else would have come along and taken your life. The fact that it hasn’t means that there’s still a spark of life in you yet.”!
! She brings her legs close to her chest, wrapping her arms around them, looking at the floor, glancing sparingly at me.!
! “You simply need to rid yourself of people like Pietro”, I continue, “in order to kindle it.”!
! I look around the room to access the damage. Aside from a blasted television, an open window, and a knocked-out man, there’s really nothing out of place. I close the window, and the digital lock goes back to green, as if I hadn’t even entered. Turning back around, I notice the lass has gone pale. I go for the bottle of Martian Dust from the counter, and offer it to her. She takes a very generous swig. I do the same. That seems to bring color back to both her cheeks and her disposition. It also leaves a slight,

strange sensation of lightness in my head, but, manages to coax a small laugh out of her.!
! “I don’t know how I got into this”, she says, lightly, “but before I knew it, I was in this funk where I hated myself, hated Pietro’s friends, hated Pietro too, frankly. But, I always made up excuses that brought me back to him, blaming myself for being too hard on him.”!

!  She shakes her head.!

!  “It had crossed the line when Pietro allowed his buddies to screw me while I was passed out. But I still kept on going, I guess, because I liked his life, and that I was apart of it. Goddamn…I’m so fucked up.”!

! She pulls her head into her knees, no longer crying, however. I figure this is a good time to make my departure.!
! “Is there someone you can call”, I ask her, “someone who can take care of you? And, preferably, not tell the police?”!

!  She looks back up at me, wiping her nose.!

!  “Um, yeah. Yeah, actually there is”, she affirms, “my family lives an hour away. I’m sure they’ll take care of me. Daddy hasn’t seen me in a few years now. Heh. I wonder what he’ll think about this? I don’t think I’ll be able to stop him from killing Pietro. Or my big brother for that matter.”!

!  Satisfied with that answer, I offer her a curt nod, and make for the door. !

!  My hand reaches the knob when I suddenly hear, “Wait. Why?”!

!  Still keeping my hand on the knob, I turn around, a smile on my face that isn’t quite happy, nor is it sad.!

! “Because, it’s my duty”, I answer, “I have my ideals that keep me going. Keep me, sane, and legitimized for the most part. And from me, I am obliged to certain actions, even if I…have hesitations about them. There’s simply a right and wrong to the world. I decide which side I want to be on.”!

!  She gets up slowly, tying up her robe.!

!  “I understand”, she replies, demurely, “thank you.”!

!  “You’re welcome”, I answer, “goodnight, Lynn.”!

!  “Goodnight, Mr.-umm”.!

!  “Richard”!

!  “Goodnight, Richard.”!

!  I open the door and exit. I suddenly grip my shoulder once again, the adrenaline cooling to reveal the pain in my shoulder that should’ve affected me earlier but didn’t. Y!ears of discipline for you. The remainder of the night uneventfully transpires.!

Chapter XIV!

R! i c h !

! The next morning begins almost surreal given the shaking events of the night before. However, on my holowatch, I receive a rather surprising email. Clicking on it, it appears to be a recording, which plays clearly as if the writer were speaking right in the room.!

! Dear Mr. Saint,!

! ! I am customarily bound to apologize for my conduct of the day past. Cortanza Industries prides itself on a stable, professional dealing with clients and associates, but, more importantly, perfects an environment of hospitality and honesty in order to foster collaboration and friendship. To be frank, I was a bit of an asshole. !

! It has become clear to me that alienating people as I have for nearly eight years is not the way to encourage a well-functioning business, since I am both the founder, CEO, and public face of my company. That being said, I must remind you that I still found your tone to be greatly out of place as well. !

! You have every right to disagree with my methods of administration and to be vocal with such complaints. However, my personal life and parenting are topics which, I may rightfully demand, be kept out of conversation and without criticism from the likes of acquaintances and associates.!
! So, in short, if you will agree to leave your qualms about my parenting out, I would permit you to visit me again at my office any time between 10 o’clock in the morning and 8 in the evening. If you don’t show up today, I will understand, but will enforce a no-entry policy regarding other members of your organization. !

!  Cordially Yours,!

!  Ezio Cortanza!

!  Founder and CEO of Cortanza Industries!

!  American Fellowship of Enterprise!

! September 3, 2069!

! As tired as I am of all members of the Cortanza family at this point, I feel
obligated to accept, out of courtesy. Plus, this man’s got A LOT to answer for. But, first things first.!
! I rouse Sage out of bed at 8 o’clock, asking him to send an anonymous tip to the police. While the drone had been discarded, conveniently disintegrated into a million, unsalvageable ashes, what it had recorded remained digitally linked to my holowatch. ! ! ! “…so, you want me to forward what you’ve recorded to the police?”, he tiredly asks me!

!  “Yes”, I reply, “can that be done?”!

!  “Oh sure”, he yawns, “the Guardians use an online service for anonymous, untraceable tips to Interpol.”!

!  “Interpol? Why not the local police?”!

!  “Well”, Sage explains, “since the Hotel Antwerp in which you’re currently staying caters to a lot of people from around the world, there’s A LOT of international interests involved there. So many people there are minor aides to the U.N., a few businesspeople, and other moderately important types.”!

! That, right away, makes me nervous. Had I known this was an internationally- watched hotel, I would’ve thought twice about vaulting through the man’s window. I begin wondering if, should I call Interpol, they’d be knocking on my door instead of the real guilty man’s.!
! “I see”, I gulp, “so, um, is there a chance that they’ll be monitoring this place? Are we even safe to contact each other?”!
! Sage laughs.!

! “I said these people were MODERATELY important, Mr. Saint. The Hotel Antwerp is a B list chain catering to people who want the feel of ‘old-world’ sophistication at a discount. It’s actually frowned upon by most of the real upper class types, however, a lot of their peons or entourage stay here during business trips to save money. Speaking of those types, I’ve heard Pietro Cortanza is staying on your floor. In fact, he’s your neighbor, right?”!

!  His words settle me down greatly, and I feel cool enough to reply.!

!  “Yes, in fact he is.”!

!  “Have you met him?”!

!  “I have.”!

!  He snorts.!

!  “Bet he’s a fucking pig, right?”!

!  I think about exactly what I want to say in that regard.!

!  “Yes”, I decide to answer, “as a matter of fact, he did seem rather unpleasant.”!

!  “I imagine he’s the person that you’re reporting, Mr Saint?”!

!  “You’ve guessed right, Mr. Lawson.”!

!  A satisfied smile crosses his lips.!

!  “Good”, he says, “it’s about time somebody finally gave that jack-off what he deserves. He’s usually able to get away with shit with the NYPD, but Interpol’s got no sympathy for him. Still, I kinda wish you’d go over there and beat his ass.”!

! Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him”, I reply, knowingly,”someday he’ll piss off the wrong man.”!
! “Huh, yeah”, Sage chortles, while I get up and move out the door, “you’re probably right.”!
! Moving into the hallway, it appears totally empty. Only, wait, what was that? A head just disappeared from around the corner there. I walk briskly to it, only to find any sign of who might have been there totally gone. That’s peculiar. I heard no footsteps whatsoever. Just like that first night, my follower has totally disappeared, leaving only minimal evidence of their presence. It has to be her, if no one else, that is.!

!  “What’s wrong?”, I hear from my wrist.!

!  “Sage”, I ask, firmly, “did Miri send someone to follow me?”!

!  He hesitates at this, a closed expression crossing his face.!

!  “Don’t fanny about”, I warn him, “just tell me.”!

!  “Alright, yes”, he admits, “shortly after you guys left, Miri told me that an experienced Guardian would be following you. A former Guardian at the Abbey of Gethsemani was to follow Duke. I’m real sorry, Mr. Saint, I shoulda told you. Are you mad at her?”!

! “No, actually, I’m not. Two men just show up out of nowhere, one of them goes on a drunken rampage, and they claim they’re thousands of years old and, suddenly, volunteer for a top secret mission. It’s perfectly understandable. Don’t trust anyone, after all. She’s quite good, you know.”!

!  “Yeah, she is”, Sage replies, yet, I detect a faint, dreaminess in his tone.!

!  “What’s that about?”, I ask.!

!  “Huh? Whaddya mean?”!

!  “Do you fancy the lass, is that it?”!

!  “Who, Miri?”, he stumbles, “well I-um, I guess-um….yeah. I do.”!

!  “And, you’re not just on the pull?”!

!  “Huh?”!

!  “You actually care for her, right, and aren’t just looking for a good bang?”!

!  “Oh, um aye. Er, yes.”!

!  “Well, good”, I affirm, “now that you’ve determined that, it’s time to take the next step.”!

!  “What’s that?”!

!  “You’ve got to let her know, lad.”!

!  “Oh no”, he hesitates, “look, Mr. Saint-“!

!  “You might as well call me Rich at this point, boy.”!

!  “Okay then…Rich. It’s not that simple. I mean, I have considered it, but, when I run it along in my head, I feel like I’d just come across as pitiable or desperate.”!

! “Well, of course it isn’t simple”, I agree, quite enjoying this diversion, “but, what you see in your thinker is completely different than the reality which you perceive.”!

!  “What’s that mean?”!

!  “You’re always going to look more foolish in your head than in reality. Remember, lad, you’re not asking yourself out, you’re asking her out. Make sense?”!

!  “Aye-err-yes.”!

!  “That is the key point”, I continue, “she’s going to think quite differently from you. You need to be sure, and, more importantly, without remorse in the invitation. You’re saying ‘ow you feel, and nobody can do anything save to admire you doing that. So, simply address her firmly, ask how she feels, and if she’s of a similar mind, then Bob’s your uncle.”!

!  “I-um-don’t follow.”!

!  “Basically”, I rephrase, “you’re both adults now, and so ought to be capable of voicing how you feel about each other, especially given your common history, okay?”!

!  “Okay”!

!  “Now, I comprehend that Miri’s one to let ‘er job supplant her personal relationships-“!

! “Yeah, see, that’s the thing”, he interrupts, “what if she doesn’t feel the same way? What if the job’s all she loves and nothing more?”!
! “Well, if you end up with Sweet Fanny Adams, that is, if you think you had a chance but didn’t, then, that’ll have to be an acceptable alternative, albeit, begrudgingly.”!
! At this point, I have entered the elevator, gone down a few floor, and am nearing the exit.!
! “If you come across desperate or shy when you’re not trying to be”, I continue, “then that’s her fault. If it’s queer for months afterward, make sure that it isn’t you making it that way. Knowing Miri, she’ll be won’t to make a big fuss. But, then again, you know her better than I do.”!

!  Sage snorts in affirmation.!

!  “Let me see. What else can I say? Well, just listen to Hey Jude, the Beatles can tell you better than I can, frankly.”!

!  “Who?”!

!  A pause, gobsmacked. That is, surprised.!

!  “I’m gutted Sage. Simply, simply sad. You’ve never ‘eard of the Beatles?”!

!  “Are they a band?”!

!  “You’re bloody right they’re a fucking a band. They’re the fucking band!”!

!  Proceeding up the street, I enter the great glass elevator.!

!  “Woah, sorry man, guess they’re before my time.”!

!  “Well, look them up or something! I can’t believe there’s a generation that doesn’t know the Beatles! They’re a household fucking name!”!

!  “But-but aren’t you used to that kind of thing?”!

!  He stops me at that. Yes, he’s right. The simple nuances a of constantly- changing world with an ever-forgetting populace, should not be surprises to me.!

!  “Yes”, I reply, somberly, “I suppose that I do.”!

!  There’s a short pause.!

!  “Well”, Sage breaks, “anyway, I’ll make sure an anonymous tip gets to the police, Mr Sa-, Rich… Sage out.”!

! The hologram disappears. Good thing too, since a family of five have just entered, a few other chaps mingling around them. I take a cigarette from my pack and light it. My last one, I’m afraid. Dammit, looks like I’ll need to buy more. Although, I’m not quite sure how many credits I have lef-!

!  “Hey buddy. You wanna get rid of that?”!

!  The voice, firm yet slightly annoying, surprises me. I turn around to find the father, a tall, blond man of about thirty in a sleek, black jacket with a curiously boxy collar. Around his arm is his wife, wearing a shining silver dress and, behind his leg, stands a boy and a girl, similarly outfitted in thin shirts with long sleeves, black and white respectively.!

!  “I beg your pardon?”, I reply, trying to sound respectful.!

!  “I asked you to douse that, sir”, he demands, “you’re gonna kill my wife and kids with that death stick.”!

!  I pause. Am I really being haggled for a simply smoking in the open air.!

!  “We’re outside, sir”, I reply, “I doubt the risk to your family is nominal.”!

!  This, however, does not stop him.!

!  “How can you be so archaic as to smoke”, he says. Archaic!? Where the hell does he get off?!

! “Do you have any idea what you’re doing to yourself”, he continues, “more importantly, do you have no respect for the people around you? Douse it, sir. Please.”!
! Well, isn’t this cheeky bastard accustomed to everyone following his own orders? I’m sure his wife and kids wouldn’t dare cross him! !
! I look around and find the man’s angry stares shared by everybody around me. That forces me to relent. Now, now, Richard, settle down. You must be respectful. !
! “He’s probably not from around here, honey”, his wife replies, a brunette about his age, “sir, we understand things are different where you come from, but over here, we share certain customs about, um, those types of practices. Would you mind dousing your cigarette, please? At least around our children?”!
! I take one last drag. I could very well blow it back in that man’s face and tell him to, ‘fuck off’, but that would be indecent. Strike that, it’d be something Duke would do, if he smoked that is. I go to the garbage can near the glass door, put if out and throw it in.!

!  “Forgive me”, I apologize, “I am simply not familiar with your customs.”!

!  “Thank you, sir”, the wife gratifies.!

! “I know it’s not my place, but, I think you should get help”, her husband chimes in, “us Americans tend to look down on smoking. At least in family-oriented circles.”!
! “Very well then”, I reply, sounding more sorry than I need to be, “yes, I suppose England’s not quite at that point yet.”!

! “Well they ought to get there, soon”, he replies, rather rudely, “before the rest of the world leaves them behi-“!
! “Now I didn’t ask for advice, sir”, I interrupt, “and I would ask that you don’t assume any more about my land that you ought to. It is simply unjust.”!

! “And I would suggest that you control your anger”, he commands, patronizingly, “you make a scene, and I won’t hesitate to call the police.”!
! “Now, honey”, the wife intercedes, “don’t you get angry too. Perhaps he’s having a bad day and, like you said, he probably needs help.”!

! “It’s not anything like that, miss”, I respond, controlled, “I merely do not care for other people making assumptions about my culture. That goes too far.”

!  “You’re right”, she says,”honey, will you please apologize to the this man?”!

!  The husband looks away, defiantly.!

!  “Please, Peter”, she repeats, more firmly, looking into his eye.!

!  The husband nods, says, “I’m terribly sorry”, and offers me his hand. I take it.!

!  Guess there’s a little more egalitarianism in this marriage than I thought. !

!  “Now, I think that we ought to do a little more to make this man feel welcome, here, don’t you think, Peter?”!

! Peter nods, “Yes, I think that’s a better idea, Marilyn. Why don’t we invite you to lunch with us, sir?”!

!  “No thank you”, I decline.!

!  “Oh, but we insist”, Marilyn pleads, “I mean, the last thing we want is to have people go back to Europe and say that all Americans are archaic xenophobes.”!

! “I understand”, I persist, trying to flash a smile to get them off my back, “but I’ve somewhere important to be.”!
! I am forced to turn down several more pleas from both husband and wife, whose insistence, while virtuous, got to be rather annoying. They waived goodbye as I exited the elevator, instantly more comfortable. Just what the hell is it with this country? You’ve got union thugs beating up homeless people, a Puritan couple heckling me over a cigarette, my last fucking one if I may reiterate! !
! Nevermind, I’ve enough on my mind as it is. Best not make this situation a total arse-ache. Either way, I make my way towards the familiar, hulking complex of Cortanza Industries, go through the lobby, then the hall and the what to do of reaching the man’s office once again. I find him seated behind his desk, casually smoking. His expression does not change at my entrance. It’s as though he is expecting me, spending several hours with a knowing smile behind a veil of smoke. !

!  “Mr. Cortanza”, I greet.!

!  “Mr. Saint”, he responds in kind, “please sit.”!

!  I do so, my eyes somewhat disturbed by the smoke. Yet, it is an ironic, somewhat relieving feeling. !

!  “I will get rid of the smoke so that we may talk.”!!

!  “Oh, it’s perfectly alright, sir”, I offer, as he flips a switch, a soft sound emanating from a round vent above us. Just like in Miri’s office, the smoke rises directly into the

vent, the smoke and the smell disappearing almost immediately. Now wouldn’t that have been handy when sneaking in a few smokes in after Cecile got me to quit. Tried to get me to quit. But that’s a different story.!
! Cortanza folds his hands, cigarette smoking in his mouth, looking directly at me. He then removes the cigarette, and douses it. ! !

! “I received a call from my son early this morning”, he says to me, “and, amidst his innate babble and cringing from what appears to be one hell of a hangover, I was able to discern that someone broke into his suite, beat him senseless, and then shot his television. Which was of a antiquated, glass-screen style I might add, so the hotel’s rightly pissed off.”!

! “Really”, I feign ignorance,”well I must have slept very soundly, since, I don’t remember hearing anything.”!

!  He smiles knowingly.!

!  “Now, Mr. Saint, my son tends to be of a…confrontational sort. And, especially when intoxicated, he becomes an all around bear, particularly to…the people living with him. Now, he never hurts anyone, per say, but, what he says tends to be very hurtful- hurtful enough to, say, enrage the sentiments of a rather passionate individual. Now, it is because of Pietro’s instability that he tends to surround himself with people who approve, more or less, of such conduct. I can assure you, however, that they only like him for his money and connections. I daresay that they like me more than him, seeing as how I’ve got all the credits.”!

!  I am silent.!

!  “Now”, he continues, and I hear a drawer opening on the other side of me, “there was once a man whom, as I described, found displeasure in Pietro’s behavior towards Lynn. This man, who was also a Guardian, sought to intervene into the the personal life of my son, seeing in his behavior a sense of…indecency. The incident left this older man injured and hospitalized. A shot from a blaster grazed his neck is what they claim, but by whom, was not entirely known. It most likely was Pietro by the evidence, only, I know that his constitution is a bit too weak in order to make a well-placed shot under stress. What do you say to that?”!

! I ponder for a moment, formulating what I might say in order to dodge around his little game. Of course he suspects me. I have no doubt that that is why he’s bothered to allow me back up into his lonely tower. My question is what does he want with me?!
! “I say that it could have been either of them. It was, after all, self-defense, correct?”!

!  “You don’t think it could’ve been Lynn?”!

!  “His girlfriend, you mean”, I reply, keeping with the charade, “well, I don’t exactly know what kind of person she is in order to say, sir.”!

!  “I do”, he replies, enigmatically.!

!  There’s a small pause, during which time, I hear Cortanza’s hand mysteriously fumble around for something in his desk. However, his eyes never break their gaze.!

! “When this man was released from the hospital, I invited him, personally, up to my office. I figured that we could talk. Sort things out. Ensure that there were no complications in this matter.”!

! I hear the drawer suddenly close. My instincts lead my right hand to move slowly into my coat. This gesture is kept noticeably inconspicuous so as not to draw attention to my fingers curling over the butt of my old revolver.!

!  “I see. And, um, how did that go?”!

!  “Let’s just say”, Cortanza begins, and with a swift movement, brings what was in the drawer onto the desk, “he didn’t see fit to bother me any longer.”!

! It is a laughably familiar dark bottle, bearing the title, “Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Whiskey”. The year on it: 1967. A hundred-year-old whiskey, before the proof of this elixir was lowered to eighty. Cortanza’s smug smile melts into hearty laughter, as he removes two shot glasses from the drawer, slamming then onto the table with masculine guile. Now don’t I feel silly?!

!  “You cheeky bastard”, I exclaim involuntarily.!

!  “I had you scared, didn’t I”, Cortanza replies as he smugly pours two shots. !

!  “Apprehensive is more the term”, I reply, defensively, “I’m accustomed to being on edge with people I don’t know. Hell, even the ones I do know scare me sometimes.”!

!  “I know what you mean”, he replies, and we both chuckle knowingly.!

!  “Now”, he continues, more firm, “I am not doing as way of apology, but as a way of gaining trust. I have been nominally cagey with you Guardians in the past because of the scrutiny your organization is under currently. However, what I said in my letter, I stand by. I do not accept you criticizing my parenting, however, I recognize now that I can no longer expect to get ahead while alienating people from the truth about me.”!

! He passes me the shot, and we simultaneously drink. To the untrained drinker, Jack Daniels sends one staggering after swigging down the equivalent of nail polish remover, which, by the way, smells bad for a reason that would make many lasses reconsider their use of makeup. To me, however, it is just what I needed. !

!  “Two relics”, I muse.!

!  He looks at me, quizzically.!

!  “We’re two relics, you and I. Drinking from another relic. Equally old, but twice as valuable.”!

! That seems to draw a cheery, but somewhat awkward expression from him. But, the man wastes no time on sentiment.!

!  “I gather that my son approached you yesterday with several accusations about me?”!

!  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he would know this. I nod.!

!  “Bah, that’s not news to me”, he scoffs, “that boy has been trying get me thrown in jail for ten years. I suppose he brought up the business with Pyotr Kowalski? The disabled man whose wages were lowered and the International Workers Union sued me for it?”!

!  I nod again.!

!  “Mr. Kowalski was sixty-three years old”, he explains, “when his leg was broken after he was hit by a car. The car was driven by a drunk driver whose mother happened to be the head of a multinational shipping firm. I won’t name which, but, Kowalski didn’t haven enough money to sue her, and the union claimed that they didn’t back, “non-work related incidents”, so he had to drop the case. !

! “But, coming back to work, he insisted on still operating the machines that pressed Cortasteel into bars. He was the most experienced on the floor at that time, so,

I understood. However, I advised him that it would be dangerous for him to do this, and I insisted that he find a safer job. He refused, and four months later he re-injured his leg. This time at work. Yet, he approached me and begged me to keep his job, or, at least, keep a job here.”!

! “Sounds like your workers are very devoted to you”, I remark as he pours me another shot and passes it to me.!
! “Ah, bullshit”, he rebuffs, “I haven’t even been to the workers’ bar for a friendly drink in five years. But, most of the men like Kowalski are some of my first workers, Many of them found their best friends and even spouses here, so, they have connections. Plus, their children get almost guaranteed employment.”!

!  “Isn’t that risky?”, I remark, “and doesn’t that exclude other people as well?”!

!  He smiles, but there’s a cavalier twinkle in his eye.!

!  “You sound like one of those unionist bastards”, he replies, lightly, “the families I hire on, I make sure that they raise their children responsibly if they want jobs in my mills. In the end, really, I’ll hire anybody, but only the most capable stick around.”!

!  “I see. So, what of Mr. Kowalski?”!

!  “Right, right”, he remembers, pouring himself another shot, “so, I at last found him a job in my mills, but, I told him that his wages would have to be lowered as his level of work would be greatly decreased. I also offered him several alternatives for higher-paying jobs. There was a mechanical advisor position at the U.S. Steel plant down the road, and if he applied for a job at Martinez’s Automotives upstate, he could’ve gotten foreman despite his injury. They’re a smaller operation and their foreman has just retired. But, he had his wife in the workers’ bakery, his sons who work downstairs, and his daughter who works in the city with her husband at, um, a hospital, I think, but, I don’t remember which one.”!

!  He pauses to light himself another cigarette.!

!  “Now, you see, that’s just my system, you understand. You are paid for how much work you do. The union, however, felt that it was my responsibility to ensure his welfare, not his own. So, they sued me.”!

!  “And what did Kowalski think of all this?”!

!  He removes his smoke and downs his shot. As do I.!

!  “He didn’t know what to make of it, and was somewhat intimidated by the lawyers and idealists who came his way. I told him not to worry, and just keep coming to work. But did they have a time with him. The unionists and liberals hung up his picture as, quote, ‘the face of Cortanza Industries’ Victimizing Labor Standards. The man who was injured and then had his wages lowered by the tyrannical dinosaur known as Ezio Cortanza!’. This is verbatim you know?”!

!  “Hmph”, I reply.!

!  “The libertarians, on the other hand, took it as an opportunity to speak out against social healthcare, claiming that millions of workers like him force capable citizens to pay more taxes. They spout objectivism at these parties they invite me to as if they’re supposed to know me. These radical boys who want to legalize the drug trade and expect me to like them because they got through the first two-hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged. They had pot legalized decades ago, yet they still badger and badger and badger. I honestly don’t envy the people who run this country as they deal with a populace ever-unsatisfied with any type of reform or lack thereof.”!

!  “I see, Mr. Cortanza”.!

!  “Oh, and the Nazis were the worst”, he cries, “sending me hate mail for employing, quote, ‘impure races’, in my mills in order to build the infrastructure of America. It was all a total shit storm, and eventually, I had to pay the union thousands in reparations which was then taxed and then subtracted into the general union fund, leaving Kowalski himself with two-thousand credits and a generous donation to his children’s college fund. So, you see, I can’t really hate the union for doing that. Through a clsuterfuck of miscommunication and media hype, they believed me to be infringing upon Kowalski’s rights. The International Workers’ Union really looks out for its people.

I just wish they’d understand that I do too.”!

!  “And, what job did you give to Mr. Kowalski? If I may ask?”!

!  He smiles, exhaling like a contented dragon.!

!  “You’ve already met him, I think. He operates the elevator down the hall.”!

!  “Oh”, I exclaim, “well, he’s certainly a friendly chap.”!

!  Silently, however, I think to myself that it’ll take more than a few admiring employees to make me like him. Much less prove his innocence.!

!  “Mr. Saint”, he says, suddenly,”what is your honest opinion of me?”!

!  Reading my thoughts, are we?!

!  “Well”, I say, “I certainly have my own thoughts in regards to your character. However, I don’t wish to spoil this moment with such critical talk.”!

! “If you’re going to sugarcoat things, here, Mr. Saint”, he warns, “then you might as well get the fuck outta here, because if I ask for your honest opinion, I don’t wanna have anyone beat around the bush. You follow me?”!
! “Yes, yes, of course”, I chuckle, attempting to dissipate the harsh air created by his words.!

!  “Very well, then. If you should like to know, Mr. Cortanza, in all honesty…”!

!  I pause, but his eyes meet mine, firm and awaiting.!

!  “I find you to be especially disagreeable in casual conversation. I daresay that the words, ‘casual’, and, ‘conversation’, never enter your thoughts. You are every bit what we have come to expect from a businessman of your stature: a short-tempered, no-nonsense workaholic withdrawn from most if not all forms of sentiment in practice. Your loyalties, like Rand’s Great Chain, are pushed and pulled depending on the change of the market, and you would willingly out-compete your own friends in order to come out ahead.”!

!  “Please, Mr. Saint”, he says with a dismissive smile, “you’re being too kind.”!

!  “Well, okay. To be curt, you are an unapologetic elitist with no regard for charity, seeing people and, truly, the world around you, as something to be obtained and invested in. When it comes to morality, you hold to none other than your own code and simply force everyone else to cope with it. In front of a camera, you paint yourself as a heartless man who brushes off every criticism thrown at you. Yet, in the end, I do believe that you like being on camera and ruffling people’s feathers a bit. You place faith in none other than yourself, which, more often than not, leaves you disappointed in yourself when you realize that you’re a flawed human being. Behind you cavalier mask, you are a socially alienated individual. By all respects, you have to rely on yourself for counsel most of the time, and this, predictably, has an impact on how you live, particularly your lifestyle of late”!

!  I expect his expression to change just a little. It doesn’t.!

!  “In short, sir, you are the thinker Locke had in mind, the ruthless magnate J.P. Morgan aspired to be, and the boisterous, debonair, and unflinching radical before whom Ayn Rand herself would stand in veneration. Have I made that perfectly clear?”!

! I feel quite better having gotten that out. I imagine it isn’t the worst criticism he’s heard, yet, he responds with a smile and,!

!  “That is the most honest thing somebody’s told me in a long time. Thank you.”!

!  He gestures for me to pass my shot to him. He fills it once more with the dark elixir, and I cradle it in my hand while he continues,!

! “So, I suppose Pietro also brought up the instance with Aleah Carmichael? The old woman whose debts to me were ‘forced’ upon her son?”!

!
!
!
!
to pay !

“I do believe I heard something like that, yes.”!
“You want to know the truth?’!
“Naturally”!
“Upon her signing for the metal, I had Aleah’s son, Jarman Carmichael, co-sign off the debts should she expire before she could pay them.”!

“And, did she do this voluntarily.”!
He sighs, douses his cigarette dismissively.!
“No”, he admits, ”but, I made her do it given her health complications vis a vi the

!
!
time needed to pay off the loan. In fact, I initially refused to loan her my metal entirely given those circumstances, but, for two years she persisted. I finally agreed only if her son would agree to pay off the rest. She could, honestly, have lived past a hundred if she weren’t a diabetic. The son had come into a fair share of money as an insurance attorney and because his wife never had children, now isn’t that a course I should’ve followed, he would not nor will be in any financial difficulty in the near future. And, he only ended up paying 8K anyhow.”!
! “It seems as though it was settled long ago”, I remark, remembering how Pietro had mentioned that this one was an ongoing issue.!
! “Yes”, he replies heartily, “I imagine Pietro told you that it’s ‘still pending’, right? It’s still pending in the sense that Jarman hasn’t paid off the 8K yet, but probably will next year. Understand, Mr. Saint, that I keep my allowance for doubtful accounts and creditors very low, simply because I like to deal only with responsible creditors. This makes my receivable turn, i.e. how well what I loan out is paid back, look extremely attractive to investors.”!
! “There was, now, a third issue”, I add, “about a small, family-owned business in Arkansas that made ax heads out of Cortasteel.”!

!  He begins nodding before my sentence is even finished.!

!  “You, as I was told”, I continue,”bought this business, ran it into the ground, and then fired all of the workers.”!

!  I receive no response. No protest. No alternate answer.!

!  “So, this is true then?”!

!  He nods.!

!  “I bought that business”, he states, unapologetic,”and, yes, it ran into the ground, however, it would’ve failed even if I hadn’t bought it. I purposely kept that information out of official reports so as not to scare investors. You see, the nuances of business entail cutting off dying leaves so that the plant may grow beautiful to behold, and then making

sure all the investors see if green. That doesn’t mean that I am able to avoid all perceived weaknesses, but, we want don’t exactly want to expose our weak links and poor investments.!
! The rather tastelessly-named Frederickson Bros. Big Wood Inc. was run by a humble, Arkansas family who largely employed their relatives. However, they didn’t think that their relatives would be lazy, feeling entitled to a job they probably didn’t deserve when I knew of thirty, younger people, who simply spoke poorer English, that could have and would have worked harder than those employees did. I simply bought the business out and then let it die because I believe that I and my people could do the job better. And we turned out to be right. The result: two of the brothers and their families retired with the liquidation money, the third one, the most capable of the bunch, is still the manager of a Cortanza Industries branch in that state, manufacturing ax heads among other specialized tools to the niche market.”!
! “Hmph”, I remark, downing my drink, “well that all seems to make plenty of sense, Mr. Cortanza.”!

!  With the aid of the alcohol, I see fit to relax myself into the chair.!

!  “Now, I am not trying to justify myself”, he reminds me, “I am only relating the truth of what I did. Agree with me or not, I couldn’t really give a damn.”!

!  “What about The Forgotten?”, I state, going in for the clincher, “how do you justify that?”!

!  He downs his drink rapidly, and points his finger at me, but I cut him off before he can say anything.!

! “This has been a diverting interview, Mr. Cortanza”, I affirm, “but I saved your life three days ago, and still have not gotten the answer which I have demanded since then. Now, I am more than willing to take whatever action necessary, legal or not, to get my answers.”!
! “Oh, I’m sure you’d love to”, he fences, “but considering the scrutiny you Guardians are under, I doubt you’ve got that kind of muscle anymore.”!
! “I had the stones to break into your son’s suite, knock him senseless, stare down and the barrel of his girlfriend’s gun, before which I saved the life of a heartless old man from four crusty thugs and, nearly being maimed by a machine man. Does that prove anything to you?”!

!  There’s a pause.!

!  “As much as I find us on opposite sides of the political spectrum”, I break,”we are both similar in the sense that we don’t give a damn about the backlash to our most of our decisions because we truly have little left to lose. Am I correct?”!

His eyes become downcast for only one, permitted moment of sadness, before turning back to me, and nodding up and down. !

“Yes, Mr. Saint”, he mumbles, almost defeated “you are right….okay then. You’ll be one of the few people who will get to know this story. It’s-it’s not a good one, at all. But, it’s fairly short, considering the end of it has yet to come.”!
! He exhales real big, then lights another cigarette. Breaking his perfect stature for the first time, Cortanza cracks his back, and reclines in his chair. He rotates around, and my eyes follow his, out toward the yard below with scurrying workers, the moat of m!olten metal, and the complex of Cortanza’s empire beyond.

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