alice had always been bored as a child, and as a young girl.
but after coming out as a deb, and going away to school, and meeting and marrying baron, and helping baron in his long and more or less successful career, and participating in and sometimes chairing so many activities, she had not been bored quite so much.
but now she was getting old and was starting to get bored again.
alice thought of herself as “getting old” but uncharitable or tactless fellow humans might have described her as already old, and as having been so for a while.
in any case she felt bored quite a bit lately, and though she barely admitted it to herself, somewhat lonely.
one morning alice was sitting in the park, staring into space. she had a book with her, but had not been able to find it interesting.
a young woman was sitting on the bench next to alice’s. she reminded alice of herself as a young woman, though she was a bit thinner, and had blonde hair, not brown.
the young woman was reading a book, a hard covered book, and the book was by ngaio marsh, who was one of alice’s favorite authors.
i could not help noticing, alice addressed the young woman, that you are reading a book by ngaio marsh. she has always been one of my favorite authors, though not as well known as she should be.
yes, she is one of my favorite mystery authors too, the young woman replied, so much better, i think, than agatha christie or dorothy sayers.
the ice thus broken, alice and the young woman fell into conversation. her long years of accompanying baron to dinners and fundraisers, and attending them by herself, had left alice with great ease in conversing with strangers of all sorts.
the young woman with the novel by ngaio marsh introduced herself as bathsheba benson, and described herself to alice as an investor and financial consultant.
alice was well aware that young women now engaged in such activities, and had for some time, but was still always a bit amazed at meeting one face to face.
alice invited bathsheba to lunch. they discovered they had quite a bit in common.
they began seeing each other with some regularity, for lunch or shopping, and sometimes went to the movies or the theater.
alice was not wealthy, but baron, who had had a few reverses before his death, had left her a comfortable nest egg of forty or fifty million dollars.
bathsheba offered to invest some of alice’s money for her, and alice gratefully accepted the offer. they agreed that it was not necessary to inform fred simmons, alice’s and baron’s regular banker, of bathsheba’s efforts on alice’s behalf.
things went on in this way. then alice died in her sleep.
alice and baron had never had children, but alice had a nephew, paul jones, who occupied his days as an attorney and who had expected to inherit whatever she left.
alice had left a note for paul describing her friendship and relationship with bathsheba. paul found the basic fact of the friendship confirmed by megan, alice’s longtime maid.
paul’s reaction can well be imagined. he contacted fred simmons, who was even more horrified than paul.
after the proper preliminaries had been gotten through, fred simmons and paul were able to look at alice’s assets.
they were now worth four point three billion dollars.
can this be true? paul exclaimed.
fred simmons cleared his throat. i had not wanted to say anything , he explained, as i thought - was in fact virtually certain that the woman known to alice as bathsheba benson was an impostor - but there is in fact a bathsheba benson who has made quite a name for herself on the street. started out at meredith, mayfair, and hodges but has since struck out on her own.
so this is all legitimate? paul asked.
probably. of course we will have to check it further, make absolutely sure. and needless to say, fred continued, you realize that four point three billion dollars is not what it used to be.
richard smith was fascinated by, and sometimes obsessed by, the idea that everything in the world was connected.
he had read an article in a magazine, or maybe seen a show on public television, about the so-called butterfly effect, and it had a profound effect on him.
richard was always conscious, or at least conscious a lot of the time, that the slightest action could have the widest or most terrible effect.
he was by nature a cautious person, and this consciousness of the connectedness of things served to increase his natural caution.
one day richard was standing at the bus stop waiting for his bus, when he was suddenly approached by a stranger.
the stranger was a heavy-set fellow wearing a cheap brown suit and a white shirt open at the neck. richard thought he looked surly and a bit menacing.
do you know where - 175 barton street is from here? the stranger asked richard in his surly menacing voice. he had a scrap of paper in his hand and glanced down at it as he spoke.
without thinking richard answered, yes, you see that burger king over there? the street to the right of it is 7th street, just go down past the first light and the first street past the light is barton street. i am not sure where 175 would be, probably -
but before richard could finish, the surly man said thanks, put his piece of paper in his pocket, and marched off in the direction of the burger king. richard watched as he turned the corner and headed down 7th street.
as soon as the stranger was gone, richard regretted giving him the directions. but it had happened so fast, and richard had given way to his polite, civilized instincts.
what a nasty looking fellow! surely he was on his way to murder the unfortunate occupant of 175 barton st, or at least beat him up to collect a debt, or maybe the stranger was engaged in some sort of sex trafficking!
richard wanted to call 911, but he had enough sense to realize the response he would get .
how he wished had not given the man the directions. well, richard thought, he would have gotten them from somebody else, but as soon as he thought that, he realized how weak it was.
he was responsible.
richard’s bus pulled up and he got on it.
richard looked at the newspaper and checked the local news online for the next few days but did not see anything about a murder or violent incident on barton st.
as the days and weeks went by, richard tried to put the incident out of his mind, but kept coming back to it.
in his mind he gave the stranger a name - william brown. he forgot that this name only existed in his mind, and that he did not really know the stranger’s name. he began googling “william brown” and “barton street” but without any result.
one day richard got off work early and he decided to walk past 175 barton street himself and check it out. part of his brain knew how futile and pointless this was, but he could not help himself and found himself walking down 7th street toward barton st.
but before richard reached barton street he saw a man step out of a convenience store on to the sidewalk in front of him.
it was william brown!
william brown turned and looked richard straight in the face, almost as if richard had called out to him.
richard tried to pretend he had not seen william brown, but realized the surprise and confusion he had felt must have been obvious on his face.
richard crossed over to the other side of the street. a car’s brakes squealed and someone shouted at him.
he started walking back up 7th street away from barton st, as quickly as he could without running.
richard was afraid to look behind him, but tried to look at the reflections in the store windows as he passed them to see if william brown was following him. this did not work as well as it did in books and movies.
mr x got to the office every morning and decided what everybody in the world would wear next day.
and what they would they eat.
and what exercises they would do.
and whether they would run or walk, and how many miles, and in in which direction.
and what shows they would watch in the evening, after finishing their exercises and running or walking, and after they had finished digesting their final meal of the day, and taken their pills.
and when these things had been decided, mr x got down to serious business, controlling the weather, wind, and tides, and adjusting, if necessary, the plan for the world ecology for the next 100,000 years.
then a couple of unfortunate incidents occurred.
mr x was passing by the typing pool one day, after a visit to the roof observatory to see if the rain was falling properly, when he noticed millie harris, one of the typists. she was wearing a pink scarf.
that’s a nice scarf, millie, mr x observed.
oh, do you like it, mr x? millie exclaimed. here take it! give it to your wife, or one of your great-grandchildren.
oh, no, i couldn’t.
please, i insist!
mr x took the scarf. word quickly got around.
it began to be rumored than mr x was abusing his position for personal gain.
then the second incident occurred.
the tigers were playing the wildcats for the world championship. mr x was passing through the mail room.
johnny miller, one of the mail boys, asked mr x who he thought would win the championship.
mr x smiled, and replied that he did not gamble himself, but he had heard that the smart money was on the tigers.
the tigers won, and word quickly got around that the fix had been in.
cracks began to appear in the smooth surface of human society.
historians would long debate whether the cracks suddenly appeared, or had already been developing under the surface.
two opposing camps emerged. the parthians, or reds, who supported mr x and the existing order, and the scythians,or greens, who demanded sweeping change.
tribes and nations reappeared. families broke apart. brother turned against brother, sister against sister, children against parents and grandparents.
gangs and secret societies formed, then militias, then armies, navies, air forces, and missile sites..
here we are in front of the old world headquarters, where it all began in what now seems another millennia, although it was only a few years ago.
here comes a young man, wearing parthian red. good morning, would you mind answering a few questions?
go for it.
may i ask your name?
aaron, you look just old enough to remember the old days, how do you like the new ones?
i fucking love it, man. i mean, this is great. life was so boring, every day you would say hi or hello to somebody, and they would say hi or hello back, how lame was that? now, if i see some some asshole wearing scythian green, i can get in his face, say, fuck you asshole, we are the future, we’re going to kick your ass, and if it’s a really nice day i actually kick his ass. i mean, this is the way it was meant to be.
thank you, aaron. and you, sir, you look like you want to say something. what’s your name.
and what’s on your mind this morning, bud?
well, i just saw you talking to that parthian asshole, and i want to say that anything and everything he told you is a fucking lie, a total fabrication because the parthians are living in a brainwashed alternate hypocritical reality that has nothing to do with anything and will destroy the world.
and why do you think that is, bud?
power, man, it’s all about power. don’t let anybody tell you different. it’s about power and always has been.
thank you, bud. and you, young lady, what is your name?
doreen. doreen dudley.
and what do you think the problem is, doreen?
greed. just good old-fashioned greed. these scythians think they own the world.
once upon a time there was a mad scientist named professor glumm.
he decided to conquer the world by developing an army of creatures called shmucks who would regard him as a god and do his bidding.
he rented a farm outside watertown new york, and with his assistant, grub, began breeding and raising the shmucks.
in order to feed the shmucks, the professor and grub planted a number of morb trees and an equal number of mumm trees. the morbs contained vitamin b and the mumms contained vitamin c.
things went well at first, as the young shmucks absorbed their early lessons.
the professor and grub noted that the little shmucks seemed to prefer the fruit of the morb trees to the fruit of the mumm trees, but as they generally ate what they were given, this was not seen as a problem.
but as the shmucks got bigger and older, they began to show a distinct preference for the morbs over the mumms. they began leaving their dormitories at night, and stripping the morb trees bare.
the mumm fruit began to pile up and rot under the mumm trees, because the shmucks refused to help grub gather them. the professor himself took hours off from writing his papers to help his overworked assistant, but it was to no avail.
nothing the professor or glum could do or devise could persuade the shmucks to eat the mumm fruits.
deprived of their necessary amounts of vitamin c, the shmucks grew restless, inattentive, and surly in class, and even more restless and surly at night in their dormitories, and they began plotting against professor glumm.
finally, a leader emerged among the shmucks, and they broke into the professor’s mansion and murdered him in his bed and escaped into the countryside.
glum and a young shmuck female hitchhiked into syracuse. they got married and opened a convenience store which aggressively promoted the sale of lottery tickets.
the rest of the human race, not realizing what a close escape it had had, went about its business.
once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess. she lived in a faraway castle on the edge of a faraway sea.
everyone in the castle, and the kingdom, loved the princess. but their love was not enough to prevent the princess from being unhappy, and from spending long hours looking out the window of her room at the top of the castle, and sighing as she looked out to sea,
i don’t like this story. it’s stupid.
but have only just begun it, miss gray replied. why not give it a chance?
i have already given it more of a chance than it deserves. why must all stories be about princesses?
and castles and handsome princes? why not about something else for a change?
well that is a reasonable enough request, miss gray smiled. let me start over.
once upon a time there was a beautiful young governess.
how absurd! governesses are not beautiful. if they were, they would not be governesses. look at yourself - you are as plain as a stick left out in the rain.
miss gray had been warned that sandrine was a horrid child, so she was not entirely surprised by these outbursts. but she was prepared to endure the most wretched and obnoxious child, in preference to the hunger pangs she had experienced when she was lacking employment.
once upon a time there was a person who was neither rich nor poor, fat nor thin, beautiful or ugly, or young or old, and the person lived in an old house on a hill overlooking a dismal swamp.
not half so dismal as this story is starting out.
one day the person was looking out the window of the old house, and saw a space ship in the sky.
oh no! science fiction! i absolutely loathe science fiction.
all right, one day the person was looking out the window and saw a motley band of creatures appearing over the brow of the hill.
the brow of the hill? what a quaint expression. are you sure you even know what it means? nobody uses it any more, except boring old governesses. let us enter the modern world, if you please.
a motley band of creatures appeared on the crest of the hill. there was an ogre, a vampire, a werewolf, a cowboy, a witch, a pirate, and a little dog.
cowboys? pirates? did i not just say i wished you to enter the modern world? what part of “ modern world” do you not understand?
let me start over.
please do. this is your last chance.
a young woman named pathfinder smith lived in a great city at the edge of the world. she had a cat named constance and a boa constrictor named bartholomew. pathfinder and constance and bartjholomew were hungry all the time, but they hoped to strike it rich by developing a comedy act and appearing on a television show called superstar search. pathfinder had a day job at a day care center and she attempted to hone her comedy skills by telling jokes to the small children entrusted to her care.
one day there was hurricane, and the roof of the day care center was blown off. two young men arrived to fix the roof. one was a giant named george and the other was a dwarf named washington. george and washington both fell in love with pathfinder, and as they were fixing the roof, they both laughed so hard at the jokes she told them as they worked that they fell off their ladders.
one of the children in the day care center was a little girl named alice james, and she was the richest little girl in the world. her best friend at the day care center was a little boy named millard fillmore, who lived in a hole in the ground behind an opium den …
i do not at all like the way this story is progressing. i have heard stupid stories before, but this opens up whole new vistas of imbecility. i think you are attempting to be, in what you no doubt consider a subtle manner, sarcastic at my expense and are not making a sincere effort to entertain me. therefore i am having you sacked.
sandrine watched from the window as miss gray disappeared down the road.
how she envied her! free as a bird, free to wander over the earth wherever she wished.
not like poor sandrine, a prisoner in this miserable old house with all the boring servants and the even more boring old relatives!
once upon a time, miss green began, there was a beautiful young princess. her name was matilda, she lived in a faraway castle on the edge of a faraway sea.
everyone in the castle, and in the kingdom, loved the princess.
except one person. her sister, princess mirabella, who bitterly resented that the princess had inherited the kingdom when their father, good king walter, had perished in battle defeating the dragon army and saving the kingdom.
one night mirabella sent a raven with a message to the castle of the dragon king…
i hope i am not boring you, miss green interrupted her own story. the story is an old one, and perhaps familiar.
oh not at all, sandrine replied. please go on, it is quite the most fascinating tale i have ever heard…
he appeared at mccarthy’s coffee shop, the only place in town a stranger could enter without a password.
little eddie saw the stranger and ran and told sheriff john brown.
sheriff john brown moseyed over to the coffee shop.
he found the stranger enjoying a plain espresso and a five berry yogurt.
mind coming with me and answering a few questions? it’s just a formality. you can finish your yogurt.
i do not mind at all, the stranger replied, and after leisurely finishing his espresso and yogurt he followed the sheriff over to his office.
have a seat, said the sheriff, and the stranger did. the sheriff sat down behind his desk.
tell me something about yourself, the sheriff said.
there is not much to tell, the stranger replied. i have lost my way and lost my memory and do not know who i am, so i wander through this mysterious universe as best i can.
perhaps i can help you out, said the sheriff. he took a small notebook out of the top drawer of his desk.
the sheriff tapped on the notebook. i have a list of questions here, he told the stranger.
i am kind of ignorant, the stranger told him, and not very good at answering questions.
that is not a problem, said the sheriff, as there are no right answers to the questions. there are only 20 questions, and they are multiple choice, with each question having four possible answers. are you with me so far?
i guess, the stranger replied.
there are 1,099,511,627,726 different possible sets of answers, but not nearly so many humans , so by matching the answers on file from the test you must have taken previously, we can quickly match you with who you really are. are you ready?
as ready as i am going to be.
here is the first question.
alice’s favorite color is
green, the stranger answered.
question number 2: bob’s favorite food is
c. french fries
d. chocolate cake
question number 3: corinne describes herself as
a. a feminist
b. a socialist
c. an artist
d. a lost soul
the questions continued. when they reached question 17, the sheriff announced, i think we have a match, but we will finish just to be sure.
question number 20: tony is
a. ready but rough
c. his mother’s pride and joy
d. just a guy
debonair, the stranger answered.
very good. you are edward clayton morgan, of sector 233 of the illinois galaxy, and you are wanted for the murder of your wife and your best friend. an old story, but always a sad one. i will make the arrangements for your return. your wandering days are over, my friend.
thank you, said the stranger. i should feel some relief, but i can not help feeling somewhat disconcerted by these proceedings.
oh? and why is that?
are there no more secrets? no more mysteries?
secrets! mysteries! the sheriff laughed. no, and no more strangers.
and, the sheriff added as he put the notebook back in his desk, soon there will be no more towns.
it was a nice day, with a few clouds in the sky but nothing threatening.
johnny miller decided to skip school, maybe go fishing up at the bend in the river.
he had some fishing equipment slashed away by the old oak tree, for just such occasions.
first he stopped by the elite diner. he had just enough money saved up for a chocolate frappe. he figured he had enough time for the chocolate frappe before mr tompkins, the truant officer, came looking for him.
the only other customer in the diner was pop wilson, who practically lived there, reading the city paper.
and of course sheffy was behind the counter. sheffy glared at johnny in that way he had that nobody took seriously.
why aren’t you in school johnny? , sheffy asked.
i got a special pass, johnny said. he took his two dimes and five pennies out of his pocket and put them on the counter. i’ll have a chocolate frappe, please.
i don’t know, said sheffy, but i guess it’s no business of mine.
pop wilson snickered, without looking up from his paper. you like the color of the boy’s money, he told sheffy, and laughed, as if he had made a great joke.
sheffy started making the chocolate frappe. johnny turned and looked out the window.
a curious scene was unfolding .
two trucks pulled up outside. both medium sized, about the size a plumber’s or house painter’s trucks would be, but neither had any lettering on them. one parked about fifty yards up the street from the other.
as johnny watched, a man got out of each truck. the man from the truck closer to the diner wore a blue suit, and he was a mean looking cuss and looked like he needed a shave. a cigarette dangled from his lips. he opened the back of his truck and began unloading it, wooden boxes, some rope, and what looked like metal parts for a machine.
another man got out of the truck further up the road. a man in a brown suit, not quite as mean looking as the man in the blue suit, but bigger and stronger looking, with the cheap suit stretched tight on his thick arms. he began unloading his truck.
and then something even stranger happened. a green plymouth sedan pulled up and parked in the space between the two trucks, right in front of the telephone pole, and two people got out.
a little old man wearing a wrinkled gray suit and a crushed fedora, and a woman.
the woman looked a little like nurse johnson from school. old, maybe even thirty years old, but not too fat and not half bad looking. for a second johnny thought it was nurse johnson, but when she turned around he realized it was not.
and then - the little old man took some rope out of the car and began tying the woman to the telephone pole! she did not look too thrilled about it, but she held still while he did it.
meanwhile, the man in the blue suit and the man in the brown suit had been busy. each had quickly set up a kind of stand or platform beside their trucks and on each stand had begun erecting some kind of complicated metal apparatus.
blue suit’s machine looked like a catapult, and brown suit’s was similar but taller, more like a crane.
blue suit began unloading what looked like cannon balls from his truck!
pop wilson and sheffy considered the two machines. i don’t like the height on that one, sheffy pointed to brown suit’s edifice. too much downward slope, not enough torque.
but what are they doing?, johnny asked.
they are fighting over that gal, son, said pop wilson.
johnny thought it was funny that so old a female would be called a “gal”, but had too much respect for his elders to laugh out loud or say anything.
sheffy finished making the chocolate frappe and put it down at johnny’s elbow.
and then the door of the diner opened and mr tompkins the truant officer walked in.
let’s go, johnny, he announced.
awwww, just let me see how this turns out here.
don’t give me any sass, johnny, mr tompkins drawled, you don’t want to be in any more hot water than you already are.
they got back to the school just in time for algebra class.