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THE STOCK EXCHANGE
The room was dark. The room was always dark, because it had no windows; it ought not to have meant anything. But the way the shadows hung like drapery around the desk; the way the crook-necked lamp cast its measured oval of light on the polished rosewood; the way the silence lay on the room, unbroken by the hiss of a gas mantle; the way the faint, faint smell of petroleum and electricity, like the odor of wealth itself, rose up from everywhere—these things gave the darkness meaning. Nothing in that room was incidental.
The customer sat behind his desk, in a chair so tall and wide it could have hidden two bodyguards. He leaned away from the light, and it from him. Maybe he'd read somewhere that hiding one's face made for psychological advantage in business transactions. He was welcome to think so. He already had the only real advantage: money. All the rest was costume and props.
The merchandise was contained in a flat metal box half again as long as a hand, which had once been white. I put it on the edge of the desk, just outside the pool of light. Then I laid one finger on it and pushed, so that it skidded across the shining wood and stopped in front of him.
His hands came up from under the desk and settled on either side of the box. Then the left one rose again, touched the metal, spread flat on it.
"The one I asked for?" he said. They were the first words out of his mouth since his door had opened and let me in.
"Look at it."
He scrabbled a little at the catch, his self-control momentarily breached. One hinge stuck, complaining; then the box opened with a tic, and a broken speck of metal skittered over the rosewood. Inside was another box, plastic. It was mostly deep blue, with a color photo reproduced on it, and the title. He was familiar with the design, I knew. I'd brought him others like it, but with different photos, different titles. He opened the second box to reveal the videocassette. He touched the label as if it might be fragile. "Singin' in the Rain," he said, and I could hear his satisfaction—self-satisfaction, really. He closed the inside box, and the outside. His hands returned to their guard positions, flat on the desk with the tape between them, like brackets in an equation.
"Do the contents match the label?" His voice was strong now, the voice that ordered that room and everything outside it.
"And is it really the original, or did you make a copy to sell me?"
At that, I reached out, laid the same single finger on the metal box, and slid it back across the desk to me. His hands curved like little cats rising and stretching. But they didn't reach after the box. He knew the Deal.
"You can look for it somewhere else," I said politely, "if you aren't comfortable buying from me."
His mouth, perhaps, had gone dry. I liked to think so.
We stayed like that for a moment. He might have been considering sending me away, but I doubted it. I had been searching for this one, at his request, for six months.
Finally he pulled a narrow leather bag into the light and spread it open. He shook the contents into his hand and lined them up, and made sure I saw that the bag was now empty. That was insulting, but not as insulting as his questions. Ten bright, round bits of gold he laid out between us, each with a nice portrait in the center, lovely examples of the coin-making art. Two hundred dollars hard, precisely what he had promised. Such a memory on that man.
I turned the line of coins into a stack with one hand and passed the box across the desk with the other. I looked at the top coin, then smiled across the barrier of light toward his face. "Remarkable likeness," I said. I made the money disappear, and hoped he'd noticed; it was a response to his showing me there was nothing left in the leather bag to steal.
"Another commission," he said, as if I had asked for one and he was weighing the prospect. He needed this little dance to keep from himself the knowledge that he needed me. "This'll be a hard one."
"The last one wasn't exactly lying around like gravel."
He picked up the box that held Singin' in the Rain, and turned it over and over in his hands. At last, he said, "I want the Horsemen movie."
I laughed, which I hadn't meant to do. "No."
"Because I've never seen it, that's why not. If anyone in the City would have seen it, I would, and I haven't."
"So you think it doesn't exist." There was chilly disbelief in his voice.
"I know the folklore. That some poor bastard made a sci-fi-B-movie in which psychic Special Forces soldiers took over the minds of evil brown dictators and won the war in South America. And that some folks who wore dark glasses in the nighttime arrived at his house, asked him urgent questions, and took him into custody. I've never heard if they let him out. I've never heard that the thing got video release. I've never even heard it proved that it was released, period. File the whole story next to Hitchhikers, Comma, Vanishing."
There was a silence, in which I decided he was trying to figure out what that meant. If he asked, I was going to tell him to look it up.
"You sound as if you don't believe in the Horsemen."
Sometimes I feel a profound, crippling sense of loss for something I never had: the world, as it once was. I felt it then. "Of course I believe in the Horsemen. I just don't believe that someone had the bad luck to make a movie about them."
"You're turning down the job?"
I shook my head. "I'll look. I've been looking for years. But I'm not going to find it. Not now. If it had ever existed, do you really think there'd be a copy left unburnt?"
"Five hundred," he said.
I raised my eyebrows. "A thousand, hard. Be glad I don't ask for the hand of your firstborn and half your kingdom."
"No one'd give you a thousand for a goddamn movie."
"Then if I find it, no one will get it."
Long, expensive-sounding silence. "If you find it," he said finally, rustily, "bring it to me."
I smiled, and stifled the impulse to bow. We had not agreed on a price; but we'd agreed that his figure and mine marked the borders of a country we were willing to skirmish in later, if the need arose.
He opened one of his desk drawers, dropped Singin' in the Rain into it, closed and locked it. As sometimes happens when a great deal of money changes owners in an atmosphere of bare tolerance, he suddenly turned hearty. He gestured toward a lower corner of the room and said, "Down there, some people call two hundred in gold a fortune, son. What do you plan to do with it all?"
I smiled; if he couldn't see it, he would still hear it in my voice. "Oh," I said, "I thought I'd treat myself to breakfast."
And that should have been the end of it; but it may be that I don't think clearly with a fortune in my inside pocket. "Have you seen it?" I asked him.
He was startled enough to get in the way of the light. It made him squint, his eyes lost in pasty white flesh. "Pardon?"
"Singin' in the Rain. Have you seen it?" Dancing over sofas, hanging from lampposts, piling furniture on the speech tutor. Did he have a secret passion for foolery?
"Then how do you know you want it?"
His answer was all in his face, scornful and baffled at once. Money makes me ask stupid questions. He wanted it, of course, because someone else didn't have it.
"Debbie Reynolds dies in the end," I told him.
Five minutes later I was in an elevator rumbling down from the top of the tallest building in the City, with more money than I'd ever carried in my life, literally surrounded by wealth and power. And I was mostly sick and frightened with it. When I got outside, onto the street, to anyplace that had ever been touched by sunlight, I would be all right.
I went past the guard desk, nodded at the man who sat behind it, and tried, as I went out the door, not to look as if I was rushing. I turned right, into the cheerful morning pandemonium of the mall market, and the tight prickling between my shoulders went away.
I'd done a good job, I decided on reflection. That building, that office, that customer, always made me feel claustrophobic and small, but I'd kept my mind on the Deal, and it had gone as I'd meant it to. I might have sounded a little like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, but there were worse roles.
I bought eggs and peppers and a few ounces of crumbly cheese at three different stalls, and took them all to a grill cart and had the proprietor turn them into an omelette.
After breakfast I would hail a bicycle cab and pay for the long, long ride to the western outskirts of the City, where a culture-vulture knew of a sealed-up basement holding the remains of a video production business. It would be, by my standards, a perfect day.
But it had chaos hidden in it. Cancers start that way: a cell or two, mutated, dividing, a secret for weeks or months until suddenly the transformation announces itself, and the whole organism quails in the face of it. The cells mutated that day, though I knew nothing about it for weeks.
Excerpted from Bone Dance by Emma Bull.
Copyright © 1991 by Emma Bull.
Published in July 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.