Eastern Standard Tribe – Day 43 of 64

“God, Fede, I’m sorry. I didn’t put her up to it or anything—”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m glad that there’s someone out there who cares about you. We’re getting together for dinner tonight.”

“Fede, you know, I think Linda’s terrific, but she’s a little, you know, volatile.”

“Art, everyone in O’Malley House knows just how volatile she is. ‘I won’t tell you again, Art. Moderate your tone. I won’t be shouted at.’”

“Christ, you heard that, too?”

“Don’t worry about it. She’s cool and I like her and I can stand to be shouted at a little. When did you say you were meeting with Perceptronics?”

The word shocked him. They never mentioned the name of the Jersey clients. It started as a game, but soon became woven into Fede’s paranoid procedures.

Now they had reached the endgame. Within a matter of weeks, they’d be turning in their resignations to V/DT and taking the final flight across the Atlantic and back to GMT-5, provocateurs no longer.

“Tomorrow afternoon. We’re starting late to give me time to get a full night’s sleep.” The last conference call with Perceptronics had gone fantastically. His normal handlers—sour men with nasty minds who glommed onto irrelevancies in V/DT’s strategy and teased at them until they conjured up shadowy and shrewd conspiracies where none existed—weren’t on that call. Instead, he’d spent a rollicking four hours on the line with the sharp and snarky product designers and engineers, bouncing ideas back and forth at speed. Even over the phone, the homey voices and points of view felt indefinably comfortable and familiar. They’d been delighted to start late in the day for his benefit, and had offered to work late and follow up with a visit to a bar where he could get a burger the size of a baby’s head. “We’re meeting at Perceptronics’ branch office in Acton tomorrow and the day after, then going into MassPike. The Perceptronics guys sound really excited.” Just saying the name of the company was a thrill.

“That’s really excellent, Art. Go easy, though—”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. My back’s feeling miles better.” And it was, loose and supple the way it did after a good workout.

“That’s good, but it’s not what I meant. We’re still closing this deal, still dickering over price. I need another day, maybe, to settle it. So go easy tomorrow. Give me a little leverage, OK?”

“I don’t get it. I thought we had a deal.”

“Nothing’s final till it’s vinyl, you know that. They’re balking at the royalty clause”—Fede was proposing to sell Perceptronics an exclusive license on the business-model patent he’d filed for using Art’s notes in exchange for jobs, a lump-sum payment and a royalty on every sub-license that Perceptronics sold to the world’s toll roads—“and we’re renegotiating. They’re just playing hardball, is all. Another day, tops, and I’ll have it sorted.”

“I’m confused. What do you want me to do?”

“Just, you know, stall them. Get there late. Play up your jetlag. Leave early. Don’t get anything, you know, done. Use your imagination.”

“Is there a deal or isn’t there, Fede?”

“There’s a deal, there’s a deal. I’ll do my thing, you’ll do your thing, and we’ll both be rich and living in New York before you know it. Do you understand?”

“Not really.”

“OK, that’ll have to be good enough for now. Jesus, Art, I’m doing my best here, all right?”

“Say hi to Linda for me, OK?”

“Don’t be pissed at me, Art.”

“I’m not pissed. I’ll stall them. You do your thing. I’ll take it easy, rest up my back.”

“All right. Have a great time, OK?”

“I will, Fede.”

Art rang off, feeling exhausted and aggravated. He followed the tunnel signs to the nearest up-ramp, wanting to get into the sunlight and architecture and warm himself with both. A miniscule BMW Flea blatted its horn at him when he changed lanes. Had he cut the car off? He was still looking the wrong way, still anticipating oncoming traffic on the right. He raised a hand in an apologetic wave.

It wasn’t enough for the Flea’s driver. The car ran right up to his bumper, then zipped into the adjacent lane, accelerated and cut him off, nearly causing a wreck. As it was, Art had to swerve into the parking lane on Mass Ave—how did he get to Mass Ave? God, he was lost already—to avoid him. The Flea backed off and switched lanes again, then pulled up alongside of him. The driver rolled down his window.

“How the fuck do you like it, jackoff? Don’t ever fucking cut me off!” He was a middle aged white guy in a suit, driving a car that was worth a year’s wages to Art, purple-faced and pop-eyed.

Art felt something give way inside, and then he was shouting back. “When I want your opinion, I’ll squeeze your fucking head, you sack of shit! As it is, I can barely contain my rage at the thought that a scumbag like you is consuming air that the rest of us could be breathing! Now, roll up your goddamned window and drive your fucking bourge-mobile before I smash your fucking head in!”

He shut his mouth, alarmed. What the hell was he saying? How did he end up standing here, outside of his car, shouting at the other driver, stalking towards the Flea with his hands balled into fists? Why was he picking a fight with this goddamned psycho, anyway? A year in peaceful, pistol-free London had eased his normal road-rage defense systems. Now they came up full, and he wondered if the road-rager he’d just snapped at would haul out a Second-Amendment Special and cap him.

But the other driver looked as shocked as Art felt. He rolled up his window and sped off, turning wildly at the next corner—Brookline, Art saw. Art got back into his rental, pulled off to the curb and asked his comm to generate an optimal route to his hotel, and drove in numb silence the rest of the way.

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