Home > The Hungry Dreaming

The Hungry Dreaming
Author: Craig Schaefer

 


1.

 


Nell Bluth’s pen was a Smith & Wesson tactical model. She didn’t know Smith & Wesson made pens until she got one as a birthday present, but she liked it, and she kept it clean and loaded. It was a hard spike of aircraft-grade aluminum, hot pink, and the business end could break glass or give somebody a bad day.

She’d never had to do either of those things, but it was nice to have the option.

“Print media sits in back, Bluth.”

Harrelson delivered Nell’s eviction notice with the tired resignation of a playground monitor. He dropped into the folding chair to her left while his cameraman, tight-lipped and focused, set up a tripod.

A spiral notebook balanced on Nell’s knee. The cap of her pen rapped against the tight blue lines, playing hopscotch over the empty space in between. “I’m not blocking your shot.”

“No, but there’s only so much room up front. Somebody might need it.”

“Then they should have gotten here early, like me.”

She craned her neck and looked behind her. The hall was filling up. Press passes dangled from navy-blue lanyards, plastic glistening almost wet under the atrium lights. Interns had pushed a podium out front, a ship with no captain, and now they were propping up easels with visual aids for the slow kids. Neon grids bent along poster board like something out of The Matrix, resolving into a glowing silhouette of the Manhattan skyline. A hard-edged font declared, The Loom: The Future of Emergency Management, Today.

Nell scratched a note on her pad. Notably absent: any facts, hard figures, or dollar signs. Now the interns were setting up a side table with water bottles and Loom-branded tote bags for the attendees to take home.

“Feels like a movie junket,” she muttered.

Harrelson gave her a sidelong glance. “Then why are you here?”

“I have my reasons.”

She had his interest now, too. “You’re onto something. What have you got?”

“Secrets.”

She pantomimed locking her lips and tossing the key over her shoulder. He played it off with a wave of his hand.

“You know they’re calling you the Grim Reaper,” he said. “You’re the only reporter in this room with a body count.”

She took another look behind her. “Nah, Bukowski was in Vietnam. Door gunner on a Huey. I’m pretty sure he’s got me beat there.”

Rhonda was coming up on her other side. Big hair, attitude to match, camera guy and her own makeup tech following her like baby ducklings trailing their mama. Bangles bounced on her wrist as she jerked a sharp-nailed thumb to one side.

“Print media sits in back, Bluth.”

Nell looked left. Then she looked right. Her fingertip drew an invisible tether.

“It’s a chorus. You two ought to start a band.”

Rhonda grumbled her way into a chair. Her tech took a knee and opened a case lined with puff brushes.

“Shouldn’t have you up front,” Rhonda said. “You’re gonna scare these people.”

“Again with the chorus. How do you do it?”

Harrelson folded his arms. “This was supposed to start five minutes ago. What are they doing over there?”

Nell followed his gaze. Three men huddled close near the edge of the atrium, too far to hear but their body language did the talking. One shook his head, lips tight as a clamshell.

“They’re drawing straws,” Nell said. “Short straw has to step up to that podium and dazzle us with bullshit.”

Rhonda was getting primped. Harrelson was getting restless, drumming his fingers on his knees. Nervous energy. Nell poured hers into her notepad, scratching out another line.

Just NYCEM wonks in the house, no reps from the Weaver Group. Afraid of hard questions?

Harrelson gave her the side-eye. “You went to Columbia, right?”

“Even graduated,” Nell said. “Got a piece of paper that says so.”

“You ever take classes with a guy named Ramis?”

She looked up from her pad.

“Professor Ramis? Sure, he was my faculty advisor. I minored in history.”

“You talk to him lately?”

“Not since I finished, and that was…four years ago.” It was seven, but she stole birthdays where she could. “Why?”

“Your boy’s making news. Found a cache of old letters hidden in somebody’s antique furniture. Says they were written by Alexander Hamilton.”

“Huh. Good for him.”

“Not so good.” Harrelson cracked his knuckles. “They’re fake as all hell. Your old professor tried to peddle some fugazi merchandise and got caught in the act.”

Nell’s brow pinched. The Ramis she knew would have cut off his own hand before telling a lie.

“Maybe he made a mistake,” she said.

“No mistake. They’re talking about yanking his tenure for ‘moral turpitude.’ Having a con man on staff is a bad look for the school.”

“That’s not him.”

“Time can change people,” Harrelson replied. “Said it yourself, you haven’t talked to the man in seven years.”

“Four,” she said.

“I’ve seen your driver’s license.”

“Remind me again why we broke up?”

He stretched and stifled a yawn behind his hand. “You couldn’t handle the competition.”

“That wasn’t it,” she said.

At the head of the atrium, the short straw had finally been picked. The man approaching the podium wore a button-down short-sleeved shirt with a bow tie. He was a chinless creature with a comb-over, soft-bodied, a life form evolved to fill middle-management positions.

“Thank you, thank you,” he said to nonexistent applause. “If we could come to order please? If we could, please?”

The room was already in order. A few last conversations hushed down, nothing but the shuffling of papers and a stray dry-throated cough to stir the listless silence.

“Thank you. I’m Gilbert Berkeland, with New York City Emergency Management. I’m here today to talk a little about the Loom Initiative Program and field your questions as long as time permits.”

He clasped his hands together like a kid about to open his Christmas presents. True believer, Nell wrote on her pad.

“The Loom has seen successful rollouts in Houston, Amarillo, and Wichita Falls, not to mention satellite programs in several small, outlying townships. The technology is tested, proven, and fiscally sound—”

The front rows exploded. Questions climbing over questions, exclamation points waving to be heard. He gently pushed them down with his open palms. He had a sermon to deliver and wouldn’t be denied.

“Just last week, an Amber Alert went out in Houston. Within five minutes, the Loom had identified the child’s abductor, cross-referenced his employment data, rent history, tax records, vehicle registration, and their toll-booth transponder logs, and built an instant geographic profile for police to follow. The kidnapper was apprehended without incident one hour later, and the child was returned safe and sound.”

Harrelson was the first to drive an ice pick into his armor. His voice rang out, strident.

“And all of that data is being handed to a privately owned corporation.”

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