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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Middleman

A Novel

Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books



KEVIN MOORE leaned against the counter at Sushi Taka. He counted the rings in his spicy tuna roll—one, two, three—thinking of architecture. Then he went about the ritual: the trimming of the chopsticks, the laying on of ginger, the measured smear of wasabi. The flavor was appealing, but nothing special, not to his palate, yet he had eaten so much of this food since moving to the West Coast a year ago that by now the ritual was second nature. The joy he took in eating sushi was one of form and not content; this realization felt like something important.

He shifted his gaze to the window in front of him—watching, like always. A few minutes ago, he’d seen a homeless guy urinate against the bland office building across the street, turning to face the wall as if by this show of modesty no one would notice. But San Francisco residents had seen far worse—hadn’t everyone?—so no one bothered him. By the time Kevin’s phone vibrated beside the tray, number unknown, the homeless guy was long gone, and there was nothing to interrupt the steady Sunday trickle of tourists, vagrants, and hookers.

“Hello?” he said into the phone.

“Time to go, George,” said a male voice.

The office building blurred. “Really?”

“Now,” the caller said, then hung up.

Kevin blinked until his sight cleared, the hazy distance coming into focus again. He wasn’t scared, not really, because he’d been waiting weeks for this moment. Each morning, walking to the Office Depot in the Potrero Center where he stocked shelves and tried to be patient with customers, he’d carried in him the weight of knowing that this could be the day. It had never been, though, and after a while he’d begun to wonder if the day would ever come. Maybe Jasmine and Aaron had been full of hot air, posers in a city of posers, and all his time here would turn out to be a waste. And now …

No, not fear. Anxiety, yes, but not fear.

He lifted his phone again and scrolled through contacts: MOM. He typed, Off on trip with friends, let you know when I get back. xx. Send. Then he took out his wallet and removed his MasterCard, the Virginia driver’s license he’d never gotten around to changing, and even his library card, but he held on to his debit card. He brought everything to the trashcan and dropped in his soiled plate, the empty cup of miso soup, the cards, and his phone. As they disappeared into the darkness, an involuntary sigh escaped him. Though he knew better, he’d grown attached to the phone that had been pieced together in some Chinese sweatshop. The truth was that Kevin Moore loved the modern world even when he loathed it.

The trashcan lid snapped shut. It was accomplished.

He walked casually over to traffic-clogged Montgomery and south toward Market, past the grand columns of US Bank, and at the ATM emptied his account of $580. He pocketed the cash, then found a trashcan at the corner of Pine. Good-bye, cruel world—in went the debit card. He looked around, wondering if anyone had spotted his madness, but no one stared. Like a man pissing on a wall, people had probably seen this sort of thing before. They’d seen worse.

What was unexpected, though, was the feeling of lightness that overcame him. The anxiety fell away as he walked deeper into his day. A phone and a bunch of cards. So simple. Yet with a few deft moves he’d become unmoored. Who, now, was to say his name wasn’t George? Who could say if he was a rich man or a poor one? Who, really, could say what he was? I’m a NASA scientist, he could say. Or: I’m a cop. The only thing he wasn’t allowed to say was I’m a revolutionary seeking to bury all this modern sublimity.

At Market he joined the crowd heading down into the BART station to catch the 2:14 for Pittsburg/Bay Point. He reached the platform just in time to face the wind of the gray-hulled train before it emerged from the darkness. Despite the gusts, he was sweating, while around him people stared at little screens in their hands. Any other day, he would have been doing the same thing. One of the well-washed masses. His dizziness returned. It was the light-headedness, he understood now, of abandon. There wasn’t much air up here.

He searched for a seat, but there were none available until Orinda, where he settled next to an old woman reading the Bible. He peered over her shoulder—she was somewhere in Leviticus—and when she noticed him he apologized. “Are you a reader?” she asked.

“Been a while,” he said, which was true enough.

She smiled a beautiful smile and offered the Bible to him. “I got plenty of ’em.”

He tried to refuse, but her insistence was so full of earnest generosity that he gave in and carried it as his only luggage when he left at Walnut Creek. He waited until the train left again before dropping it, too, into a trashcan and trotting down the stairs to reach the underpass. He leaned against a wall and untied his left sneaker, then took it off. Holding it in his hand, he walked out into the sunlight, a slight limp from his unbalanced stride, hardly even feeling ridiculous. He waited at the curb, watching. Cars came and went, but he tried not to look expectant. He used his eyes clandestinely, checking windshields, and peered beyond to the expansive BART parking lot.

He’d been told so little. Take off your left shoe and wait. Maybe Aaron would show up. Or Mother would pull up and tell him to call it a day. Anything, really, felt possible.

He guessed that fifteen minutes passed before an old GTO—must’ve been midsixties—pulled up. A rangy-looking white man of indeterminate age leaned across the passenger seat and cranked down the window.

Kevin said, “That you, George?”

A rough voice: “Get in.”

Kevin opened the door and settled into the stink of cigarettes and fried food. George put the car into drive, and they moved slowly forward. As they exited the parking lot and continued onto Oakland Boulevard, Kevin put his shoe back on and tied it up. “So,” he said. “Where to?”



“How about you let me worry about that?”


ON THE opposite end of America, in New Jersey, a party was under way. Bill Ferris, the host, guessed he didn’t know a quarter of the partygoers; and most of those partygoers didn’t know that they were here to celebrate his retirement from the world of entertainment law. Some were confused by the fact that this was Father’s Day, and even wished their childless host a happy one, while others—neighbors, mostly—had come solely for the free booze. Not that this bothered him. He and Gina were social creatures; they had spent decades gathering around themselves a menagerie of artists, actors, gurus, and agitators of a smorgasbord of races because this was what they most enjoyed witnessing: the descendants of Trotsky engaging one another on neutral ground.

Children were safely jailed inside a screened trampoline, while the sharp aroma of skunkweed came and went along with snatches of conversation: rising unemployment in the heartland, the latest corporate mergers, the recent acquittal of a Newark cop who’d shot and killed a black man in front of his wife and daughter, a congressional money-laundering investigation into Oklahoma City’s Plains Capital Bank and Frankfurt’s IfW, or Investition für Wirtschaft, and, as ever, POTUS #45. A voice on the warm breeze: “Fuck this, man. I’m moving to Canada.”

When David and Ingrid Parker arrived, Bill was on the front porch, signing for an emergency half keg of Shiner Bock. He kissed Ingrid’s permanently flushed cheeks and asked after her health—she’d just crossed into her second trimester. “The food’s staying down,” she said, pushing back the long walnut hair that she’d been growing out for a year; once it was long enough she was going to donate it to make wigs for cancer patients. “What’ve you got to eat?”

“Everything,” he assured her.

Bill had met the Parkers ten years before, back in 2007, during a month-long stay in Berlin to negotiate the minutiae of a studio buyout, and they had remained friends ever since. Ingrid had been writing grants for the Starling Trust, while David had wallowed in the dissolute life of an expat novelist. His debut, Gray Snow, a story of concentration camp survivors making their way home to Yugoslavia through the apocalyptic landscape of postwar Europe, had garnered impressive reviews back home, and by the time Bill met him he was working furiously on his follow-up, Red Rain.

David’s audience had been small, but he was living the romantic exile’s life, which, until 2009, was enough for him. Early that year a terrorist bomb went off in an apartment building as David was passing on the street, and his brush with mortality changed everything; all he wanted now was success. The first step was to move back to Manhattan, to the nexus of American publishing, where all doors would be open to him. At first Ingrid resisted, but David eventually wore her down. She got a transfer to the Starling Trust’s New York headquarters, and they moved into an Upper East Side rental, where David spent his days hunched over a laptop, putting everything he had into his masterpiece. He was poised for success.

Which was why, after five years of hard work, he was dumbfounded when his editor unceremoniously rejected all eight hundred pages of Balkan America. Then Ingrid learned she was pregnant, and money became an issue. Her salary just covered their exorbitant rent, and as they ate their way through their savings they tried in vain to plan for the expenses of parenthood.

In the backyard, David stationed himself beside Bill, who was keeping an eye on some Kobe steaks. Though the rest of the party was being catered, Bill had insisted on manning the grill. They gazed down the arc of the yard to the trampoline, where a hired clown had just arrived to terrify the children of the Left, and Bill opened up about a fight he and Gina had been waging. “She wants to move south. Florida. Just contemplating a life in that cultural wasteland makes me sick.”

David gave him an appreciative smile, but his mind was clearly elsewhere.

“What about you and Ingrid?” Bill asked.

The smile faded. “She’s giving me a month.”


“To start pulling my weight.”

“You still have savings, don’t you?”

“We’ve eaten up too much.”

Bill didn’t say anything.

“Teaching,” David said.

“The horror.”

David drank again, looking out at the busy backyard. “Maybe we should just throw in the towel and move back to Berlin. Every time we turn on the news we talk about it. This country’s a mess.”

“Don’t watch the news, then.”

“Ingrid doesn’t watch anything else,” he said. “You know where she was after the last election? In the streets, marching around with her NOT MY PRESIDENT sign in front of Trump Tower. Screaming like a banshee. Then last week? Ran off to Newark to protest that Jersey cop who killed that guy … what’s-his-name.”

“Jerome Brown.”

A shrug. “She came back filthy. I think there was blood in her hair.”

“She wasn’t the only one protesting,” said Bill.

“Did you go?”

Bill shook his head.

“My point exactly. You and me—we’re grown-ups.”

Bill checked the steaks. While he wasn’t looking, they had burned.

Copyright © 2018 by Third State, Inc.