George Sanford has a gift for guessing right the first time and very little else going for him. When Ahmed and his other friends graduate school and got jobs in The City, George finds himself left behind. He never wanted to sign his name, let alone fill out applications and reports. Then George bumps into the Rescue Squad and is swept up in the excitement of a hunt for a trapped girl. It is George who finds her with his special talent for guessing right ... and it is George who suddenly becomes the pride of the Rescue Squad. With a friend running interference for him with the bureaucracy, George lands a place for himself as a "consultant" - and the more he works, the more his strange talents grow. With each success George begins to change. Using his special talents to rescue a computer technician from a gang of revolutionaries, he finds he has become a pawn in a mad iconoclastic game. A game where his own talents pose the greatest threat to The City - and the world!
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 320
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I stopped by a snack machine, looked at the pictures of breakfast, and watched a man put in his credit card and get out a cup of coffee. He was a young guy, a little older than me. I could smell the coffee. I’d had hot water for lunch and dinner yesterday and hot water for breakfast. It felt good in my stomach but my legs felt weak.
The vibes of morning are always good. People walked by, giving out a kind of cheerfulness. I was blotting up that feeling until suddenly it seemed right that the snack machine should give out some free food just to be friendly.
I shoved my credit card into the slot and pushed levers for a cup of coffee with two creams and two sugars and some hot buttered scrambled eggs. My hands started shaking. My mouth watered. I could smell from people’s windows the perfume of bacon and toasted plankton and hot butter on hot toast.
The machine blinked a red sign, “000.00 balance,” and my credit card rolled out of the slot. I reached for it and dropped it.
The man drinking coffee looked at my shaking hands and then at my face. Hunger doesn’t show on the outside. I’d lost a hundred pounds already and I wasn’t even skinny yet. He couldn’t feel my vibes. I have a kind of round, cheerful face, like a kid, but I’m big.
I picked up the card and grinned at him. He grinned back.
“Hard night?” he asked sympathetically, meaning had I spent a night with a girlfriend?
I made an “okay” sign with one hand and he whistled and went away grinning, giving out happy vibes of remembering great long sex nights when he’d had the shakes in the morning.
I tried two more snack machines in the next three blocks. No food.
The best food machines in lower New York City are in the artists’ and sculptors’ commune. Artists don’t like to cook when they’re working on something. I passed it on the way to the employment office and went in. I went through a big pillared arcade with a ground-level park under the half ring of building, a terraced set of parks, like balconies or shelves hanging out. I could hear a stone knife whirring and someone hammering. Mixed in among the trees, the working artists were hard to see.
I found the machine that gave Chinese dinners and tried my credit card on that. I pushed for an egg foo yong and looked at the fine food pictures. The machine held my card for a while before rolling it out from another slot. It blinked a red light just once. More polite than the other machines, but it still had no kindness and gave no free food.
“Hello, George,” a sculptor called and halted the mallet and chisel he was using to pound chips from a rough statue. The sculptor laughed every time at a joke we had between us, laughing before he said it.
He asked, “How am I, George?”
He was glowing from exercise, enjoying doing sculptures in the classical Greek technique, like Praxiteles’. It was an order for a classical commune, from the Society for Creative Anachronism. Pink health flushed his bald head, curly black hair circled his ears, muscles bulged in his arms. He was feeling a nice buzz from the exercise and his ears were ringing from the after-echoes of his pounding. I felt it all.
“You’re fine, Mr. Xerxes,” I said. “How am I?”
“Very handsome, George. Losing weight has done you good.” He smiled. “Boys and girls will be attracted and chase you and fight for you.”
Mr. Xerxes did not know that my credit card had run out. He admired my willpower. Over the last two months he’d watched me lose a hundred fat pounds by just not eating. He’d given me a bottle of reducing metabolites, left over from when he’d reduced, and they’d helped turn the fat to fuel, so I hadn’t felt weak, just hungry. Buying two nickel bowls of plankton soup a day to make the last dollars stretch.
“Do you have a job for me, Mr. Xerxes? Can I help out?” I stuffed my hands into my pockets to keep them from shaking. The artists’ commune used to have errands for me when I was on student support.
“Not today, George.” Mr. Xerxes carefully arranged a stone block behind the statue’s ear, placed his chisel, and knocked a chip off the ear. His vibes were slightly disapproving. He thought I was too big now for kid errands. He didn’t know that they wouldn’t give me a job for a man.
I tried a row of five food machines with my credit card, but the machines worked and knew that my balance was 000.00 and held their food behind locked windows.
I went across the street past people going to their jobs. Pretending I was them, not me, I felt healthy and brisk and busy, blotting up their vibes. I went into Commune 1949, the old people’s place.
I went up the escalator, just letting it carry me, not running up it, passed two lawns and front-porch floors, and then got off at Mrs. Johnson’s floor. She had a small house entirely surrounded by a lawn, and the only way it didn’t look like a cottage was that it had the pillars that held up the four corners of the giant building, but she had vines growing on them. I walked through a lawn bright with yellow dandelions and pink clover and rang her bell.
“Come in,” she called through the intercom. “I’m in the kitchen.”
The door opened into a sweet smell of cake and orange icing that was almost solid, and the living room was like a movie from the forties. It didn’t have a television, because television hadn’t been around much in ’49. The old persons’ commune was strict in trying to stay fifty years behind. The whole house smelled like doughnuts and orange cake. Orange cake is my favorite kind, and doughnuts have a smell that is better than any taste.
Mrs. Johnson was in the kitchen, carefully smearing orange icing on a big cake. The sweet smell was overwhelmingly good. A pink cake was on the table. Strawberry or cherry?
I went only halfway in. It was a small kitchen and it wasn’t big enough for both of us. Mrs. Johnson is a big person.
“Anything I can do to help?” I asked. When I was little I’d always like to help her.
“Yes.” She smiled. “You can help me carry these cakes down to the stand. You’re just in time for the joke, George. We’re running an inflation this week, and these are one-hundred-dollar cakes. Mr. Duggan likes cake.”
“Can I clean the icing pan?” There was a pan still part full of pink icing. I tasted it with a finger. Pink peppermint.
She looked at me severely. “George, I’ve been very proud of you for sticking to your diet. I wouldn’t think of tempting you. Sweet things have no nutrition, no nutrition at all. You just stick to your salads.”
I’d known she would say that. When I was fat she always gave me cookies.
I picked up the orange cake and she picked up the pink cake and we took them down to the open park at ground level.
All the old people in the commune work for each other and sell to each other. The Social Security money goes around and around like a million dollars. On the way down the escalator she told me that they’d all raised their prices to ten times as much, to get even with Mr. Duggan, the dentist, for raising his prices. The game was being run by Mr. Kracken, who was an economist who used to be a President’s economic adviser.
“Mr. Kracken is the shark who always cleans everybody out at poker,” she said. “He’s our business manager. Dentist Duggan will get a surprise today! He’ll eat a home-cooked meal worth a thousand dollars!”
I just nodded, because I couldn’t speak. The orange icing was six inches from my mouth as I carried the cake, and I kept my mouth shut to resist the temptation to take a bite. My knees were weak; I put the cake on the front table of the cookies booth. “Gotta go.” I left fast and leaned against the wall outside, shaking, seeing black spots.
A sightseers’ bus went by slowly on a cushion of air over the green grass center strip, raising a flurry of small yellow butterflies.
I walked uptown fast, trying all the slot machines. None paid off with food. I thought of telling people I was hungry. I looked at the buildings and the dark sky to keep my mind off hunger. Everything was darker, getting cloudy. Sunlight was gone. People went by looking miserable, the good vibes of the morning were gone.
I stopped at the employment office, stuck my card into the information slot. Nothing came out. No job notice. No job.
Some friends who knew Zen and Jain Yoga had told me people could go without food for thirty days. They showed me how. The only trouble is, you shake a lot. When I touched a building, it felt as if the world were trembling. I couldn’t ask for help. It was like being trapped where no one could hear you. You can’t beg.
If I told the employment board that my student support money had run out, if I told them I needed money, they’d give me an adult support pension and a ticket to leave New York and never come back.
Ahmed the Arab came along the sidewalk, going fast, his legs rangy and swinging. Ahmed used to be king of our block gang when we were smaller, and he used to ask me to help him sometimes. This year Ahmed had a job working for the Rescue Squad. Maybe he would let me help him; maybe he could swing a job for me. I liked Ahmed a lot.
I signaled him as he came close. “Ahmed.”
He went on by, hurrying. “OK, George, come on.”
I fell into stride beside him. “What’s the rush?”
“Look at the clouds, man. Something’s getting ready to happen. We’ve got to stop it.”
I looked at the clouds. The way I felt was smeared all over the sky. Dangerous, dark, dirty clouds bulged down over the city, looking ready to burst and spill out fire and dirt. In high school Psychology-A they said that people usually see the kinds of things that match their mood. My mood was bad, I could see that, but I still did not know what the sky really looked like—dark, probably, but harmless.
“What is it?” I asked. “Is it smog?”
Ahmed stopped walking, and looked at my face. “No. It’s fear.”
He was right. Fear lay like a fog across the air. Fear was in the threatening clouds and in the darkness across the faces of the people. People went by under the heavy sky, hunched as if there were a cold rain falling. Buildings above us seemed to be swaying outward.
I shut my eyes, but the buildings seemed to sway out farther.
Last year when Ahmed had been training for the Rescue Squad he’d opened up a textbook and tried to explain something to me about the difference between inner reality and outer reality, and how mobs can panic when they all see the same idea. I opened my eyes and studied the people running at me, past me, and away from me. Just crowds going by. Crowds always rush in New York. Did they all see the buildings as leaning and ready to fall? Were they afraid to mention it?
“Ahmed, you Rescue Squad fink,” I said, “what would happen if we yelled earthquake good and loud? Would they all panic?”
“Probably so.” Ahmed was looking at me with interest, his lean face and black eyes intent. “How do you feel, George? You look sick.”
“I feel lousy. Something wrong in my head. Dizzy.” Talking made it worse. I braced my hand against a wall. The walls rocked, and I felt as if I were down flat while I was still standing up.
“What in creation is wrong with me?” I asked. “I can’t get this sick from skipping a meal or so, can I?” Mentioning food made my stomach feel strange and hollow and dry. I was thinking about death suddenly. “I’m not even hungry,” I told Ahmed. “Am I sick?”
Ahmed was the one who knew the answers.
“Man, you’ve got good pickup.” Ahmed studied my face. “Someone near here is in trouble and you’re tuned in to it.” He glanced at the sky east and west. “Which way is worst? We’ve got to find him fast.”
I looked up Fifth Avenue. The giant glass office buildings loomed and glittered insecurely, showing clouds through in dark green and reflecting clouds in the gray as if dissolving into the sky. I looked along Forty-second Street to the giant arches of the Transport Center. I looked down Fifth Avenue, past the stone lions of the library, and then west to the neon signs and excitement. The darkness came at me with teeth, like a giant mouth. Hard to describe.
“Man, it’s bad.” I was shaken. “It’s bad in every direction. It’s the whole city!”
“It can’t be,” Ahmed said. “It’s loud; we must be near where the victim is.”
He put his wrist radio up to his mouth and pushed the signal button.
A voice answered, “Statistics.”
Ahmed said carefully, “This is a priority call. I’m Rescue Squad badge fifty-four B. Give me today’s trends in hospital admissions, all rises above sigma reciprocal thirty. Point the center of any area with a sharp rise in”—he looked at me analytically—“dizziness, fatigue, and acute depression.” He considered me further. “Run a check on general anxiety syndromes and hypochondria.” He waited for the Statistics Department to collect data.
I wondered if I should be proud or ashamed of feeling sick.
He waited, lean, efficient, impatient, with black eyebrows and black intense eyes. He’d looked almost the same when he was ten and I was nine. His family were immigrants, speaking some non-American language, and they were the proud kind. Another person would burn with hate or love for fights or friends; Ahmed would burn about ideas. His ideas about adventure made him king of our block gang. He’d lead us into strange adventures and grown-up no-trespassing places just to look at things, and when we were trapped he’d lead us out of trouble at high speed or talk his way out with grown-ups. The feel of a place warned me: A bad-luck place looked bad. When he consulted me or asked me how a place looked to me, I’d feel proud.
He’d left us behind. We all dropped out of high school, but Ahmed got good marks, graduated, and qualified for advanced training. All the members of our gang had taken their adult retirement pensions and left the city, except Ahmed and me—and I heard Ahmed was the best detector in the Rescue Squad.
The wrist radio whistled and he put it to his ear. The little voice crackled off figures and statistical terms. Ahmed looked around at the people passing, surprised, then looked at me more respectfully. “It’s all over Manhattan. Women coming in with psychosomatic pregnancy. Pregnant women are coming in with nightmares. Men are coming in with imaginary ulcers and cancers. Lots of suicides and lots of hospital commitments for acute suicidal melancholy. You are right. The whole city is in trouble.”
He started along Forty-second Street toward Sixth Avenue, walking fast. “Need more help. Try different techniques.” A hanging sign announced, GYPSY TEA ROOM, ORIENTAL TEAS, EXOTIC PASTRIES, READINGS OF YOUR PERSONALITY AND FUTURE. Ahmed pushed through a swinging door and went up a moving escalator two steps at a time, with me right after him. We came out into the middle of a wide, low-ceilinged restaurant with little tables and spindly chairs.
Four old ladies were clustered around one table nibbling at cupcakes and talking. A businessman sat at a table near the window reading the Wall Street Journal. The teener students sat leaning against the glass wall window looking down into Forty-second Street and its swirling crowds. A fat woman sat at a table in a corner, holding a magazine up before her face. She lowered it and looked at us over the top. The four old ladies stopped talking and the businessman folded his Wall Street Journal and put it aside as if Ahmed and I were messengers of bad news. They were all in a miserable, nervous mood like the one I was in—expecting the worst from a doomed world.
Ahmed threaded his way among the tables toward the corner table where the fat woman sat. She put her magazine aside on another table as we approached. Her face was round and pleasant with smile creases all over it. She nodded and smiled at me and then did not smile at Ahmed at all, but instead stared straight back into his eyes as he sat down in front of her.
He leaned across the table. “All right, Bessie, you feel it too. Have you located who it is?”
She spoke in a low, intense voice, as if afraid to speak loudly. “I felt it yesterday for a while, Ahmed. I tried to use the tea leaves to trace it for the Rescue Squad, but she was feeling, not thinking. Today an hour ago it got loud and awful, but echoing and amplifying in so many other people with bad moods that are scared and they keep thinking up so many reasons why they feel so—” She paused and I knew what she was trying to describe. Trying to describe it made it worse. So … so … trapped, dying, forgotten … lost.
She spoke in a lower voice and her round face was worried. “The bad-dream feeling is hanging on, Ahmed. I wonder if I’m—”
She didn’t want to talk about it, but Ahmed had his mouth open for a question. I was sorry for her and butted in to stop him.
“What do you mean about people making echoes? How come all this crowd …?” I waved my hand in a vague way, indicating the city and the people. The city was not lost.
Ahmed looked at me impatiently. “Adults don’t like to use telepathy. They pretend they can’t. But say a man falls down an elevator shaft and breaks a leg. No one finds him, and he can’t reach a phone, so he’ll get desperate and pray and start using mind power. He’ll try to send his thoughts as loud as he can. He doesn’t know how loud he can send. But the dope doesn’t broadcast his name and where he is, he just broadcasts: ‘Help! I’ve got a broken leg!’ People pick up the thought and think it’s their thought. They think, ‘Help! I’ve got a broken leg.’ People come limping into the emergency clinic and get X rays of good legs. The doctors tell them to go home. But they are picking up the thought, ‘Help! I’m going to die unless I get help!’ so they hang around the clinics and bother the doctors. They are scared. The Rescue Squad uses them as tracers. Whenever there is an abnormal wave of people applying for help in one district, we try to find the center of the wave and locate someone in real trouble.”
The more he talked, the better I felt. It untuned me from the bad mood of the day, and Rescue Squad work was beginning to sound like something I could do. I know how people feel just by standing close to them. Maybe the Rescue Squad would let me join if I showed that I could detect people.
“Great,” I said. “What about preventing murders? How do you do that?”
Ahmed took out his silver badge and looked at it. “I’ll give you an example. Imagine an intelligent, sensitive kid with a vivid imagination. He is being bullied by a stupid father. He doesn’t say anything back; he just imagines what he will do to the big man when he grows up. Whenever the big man gets him mad, the kid clenches his fists and smiles and puts everything he’s got into a blast of mental energy, thinking of himself splitting the big man’s skull with an ax. He thinks loud. A lot of people in the district have nothing much to do, nothing much to think about. They never plan or imagine much and they act on the few thoughts that come to them. Get it?”
“The dopes act out what he is thinking.” I grinned.
Ahmed did not grin. He turned back to the fat woman. “Bessie, we’ve got to locate this victim. What do the tea leaves say about where she is?”
“I haven’t asked.” Bessie reached over to the other table and picked up an empty cup. It had a few soggy tea leaves in the bottom. “I was hoping that you would find her.” She heaved herself to her feet and waddled into the kitchen.
I was still standing. Ahmed looked at me with a disgusted expression. “Quit changing the subject. Do you want to help rescue someone or don’t you?”
Bessie came back with a round pot of tea and a fresh cup on a tray. She put the tray on the table and filled the cup, then poured half of the steaming tea back into the pot. I remembered that a way to get information from the group mind is to see how people interpret peculiar shapes like ink blots and tea leaves, and I stood quietly, trying not to bother her.
She lowered herself slowly into her chair, swirled the tea in the cup, and looked in. We waited. She rocked the cup, looking, then shut her eyes and put the cup down. She sat still, eyes closed, the eyelids squeezed tight in wrinkles.
“What was it?” Ahmed asked in a low voice.
“Nothing, nothing, just a—” She stopped and choked. “Just a damned, lousy, maggoty skull.”
That had to be a worse sign than getting the ace of spades in a card cut. Death. I began to get that sick feeling again. Death for Bessie?
“I’m sorry,” Ahmed said. “But push on, Bessie. Try another angle. We need the name and address.”
“She was not thinking about her name and address.” Bessie’s eyes were still tightly shut.
Suddenly Ahmed spoke in a strange voice. I’d heard that voice years ago when he was head of our gang, when he hypnotized another kid. It was a deep smooth voice and it penetrated inside of you.
“You need help and no one has come to help you. What are you thinking?”
The question got inside my head. An answer opened up and I started to answer, but Bessie answered first. “When I don’t think, just shut my eyes and hold still, I don’t feel anything; everything goes far away. When the bad things begin to happen I can stay far away and refuse to come back.” Bessie’s voice was dreamy.
The same dark sleepy ideas had formed in my own head. She was saying them for me. Suddenly I was afraid that the darkness would swallow me. It was like a night cloud or a pillow floating deep down and inviting you to come and put your head on it, but it moved a little and turned and showed a flash of shark teeth, so you knew it was a shark waiting to eat anyone who came close.
Bessie’s eyes snapped open and she straightened herself upright, her eyes so wide open that white showed around the rims. She was scared of sleeping. I was glad she had snapped out of it. She had been drifting down into the inviting dark toward that black monster.
“If you went in too deep, you could wake up dead,” I said and put a hand on Ahmed’s shoulder to warn him to slow down.
“I don’t care which one of you speaks for her,” he said without turning around. “But you have to learn to separate your thoughts from hers. You’re not thinking of dying, the victim is. She’s in danger of death somewhere.” He leaned across the table to Bessie again. “Where is she?”
I tightened my grip on Ahmed’s shoulder, but Bessie obediently picked up the teacup in fat fingers and looked in again. Her face was round and innocent, but I judged she was braver than I was.
I went around Bessie’s side of the table to look over her shoulder into the teacup. A few tea leaves were at the bottom of the cup, drifting in an obscure pattern. She tapped the side of the cup delicately with a fat finger. The pattern shifted. The leaves made some sort of picture, but I could not make out exactly what it was. It looked as if it meant something, but I could not see it clearly.
Bessie spoke sympathetically. “You’re thirsty, aren’t you? There, there, honeybunch. We’ll find you. We haven’t forgotten you. Just think where you are and we will….” Her voice died down to a low, fading mumble, like a windup doll running down. She put the cup down and put her head down into her spread hands.
I heard a whisper. “Tired of trying, tired of smiling. Let die. Let death be born. Death will come out to destroy the world, the worthless, dry, rotten—”
Ahmed reached across and grasped her shoulders and shook them. “Bessie, snap out of it. That’s not you. It’s the other one.”
Bessie lifted a changed face from her hands. The round smiling look was gone into sagging sorrowful folds like those of an old bloodhound. She mumbled, “It’s true. Why wait for someone to help you and love you? We are born and die. No one can help that No reason to hope. Hope hurts. Hope hurt her.” It bothered me to hear Bessie talk. It was as if she were dead. It was a corpse talking.
Bessie seemed to try to pull herself together and focus on Ahmed to report, but one eye went off focus and she did not seem to see him.
She said, “Hope hurts. She hates hope. She tries to kill it. She felt my thinking and she thought my feelings of life and hope were hers. I was remembering how Harry always helped me, and she blasted in blackness and hate—” She put her face down in her hands again. “Ahmed, he’s dead. She killed Harry’s ghost in my heart. He won’t ever come back anymore, even in my dreams.” Her face was dead, like a mask.
He reached over and shook her shoulder again. “Bessie, shame on you; snap out of it.”
She straightened and glared. “It’s true. All men are beasts. No one is going to help a woman. You want me to help you at your job and win you another medal for finding that girl, don’t you? You don’t care about her.” Her face was darkening, changing to something worse that reminded me of the black shapes of the clouds.
I had to pull her out of it, but I didn’t know what to do.
Ahmed clattered the spoon against the teacup with a loud clash and spoke in a loud casual voice. “How’s the restaurant business, Bessie? Are the new girls working out?”
She looked down at the teacup, surprised, and then looked vaguely around the restaurant. “Not many customers right now. It must be an off-hour. The girls are in the kitchen.” Her face began to pull back into its own shape, a pleasant restaurant-service mask, round and ready to smile. “Can I have the girls get you anything, Ahmed?”
She turned to me with a habit of kindness, and her words were less mechanical. “Would you like anything, young man? You look so energetic standing there! Most young people like our Turkish honey rolls.” She still wasn’t focused on me, didn’t see me, really, but I smiled back at her, glad to see her feeling better.
“No thank you, ma’am,” I said and glanced at Ahmed to see what he would want to do next.
“Bessie’s honey rolls are famous,” Ahmed said. “They are dripping with honey and have so much almond flavor they burn your mouth.” He rose easily, looking lazy. “I guess I’ll have a dozen to take along.”
The fat woman sat blinking her eyes up at him. Her round face did not look sick or sagging anymore, just sort of rumpled and meaningless, like your own face looks in the mirror in the morning. “Turkish honey-and-almond rolls,” she repeated. “One dozen.” She rang a little bell in the middle of the table and rose.
“Wait for me downstairs,” Ahmed told me. He turned to her. “Remember the tim. . .
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