Clive Atkins had been adding to the book for years:
Snippets of conversation, scribbled by informants and
held as leverage for future needs. Photographs of
political enemies and friends, just in case friendship
faltered at a pivotal moment. Taped transcripts of
conversations from phone calls and private meetings in
dining rooms, country clubs and social gatherings of
every kind. It also listed who was sleeping with whom
in both a literal and a figurative sense. Yes, the
book was a treasure trove of influence and power.
It was also missing.
When he first noticed its absence, Clive slipped a
nitro tablet under his tongue and took a deep, deep
breath. It wasn't really gone, couldn't be. He was a
careful man, a fastidious man, a man who always
crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i.'
The book was stored in a wall safe and he was the only
one who knew the combination. So all he had to do was
think. And reconstruct his actions for the past
That was easy. Yesterday afternoon he'd had a visit
from Daryl Sleagal. Daryl was one of those individuals
you wanted to keep on your good side. He was a ferret.
A ferret with bad breath and inquisitive habits. Seems
Daryl had been in a men's room at the State Capital
when a certain lobbyist had felt the need to piss--at
the same time a certain State Representative came in
to wash his hands and check his tie.
Daryl took notes.
Suddenly things got pretty quiet and Daryl peered over
the top of the door. Lo and behold. The lobbyist and
the state rep were engaged in an activity that was
quite apolitical but definitely news. Daryl clicked
the shutter on his ever present camera and another
skeleton found resurrected life in Clive's book.
And it hadn't cost that much. A couple grand! Small
potatoes for dynamite. Clive had smiled. Some fish
were just too easy to shoot--even in a barrel.
After Daryl left, Clive slid the photo into his book,
adding the scribbled notes of the men's conversation.
Did they know they'd been had? Apparently not. They'd
been much too engrossed in each other to hear the soft
click from Daryl's camera or the stealthy sounds of
ferret feet on the toilet seat. Business complete,
they had zipped up and hurried back to their spheres
What had happened next? Clive scratched his head. The
phone! A wave of apprehension gobbled two more inches of his
Shit! That's right, the phone rang. Adam Tobler. And
his hot tip on stocks. Only thing, it was a hot tip
and Clive needed a serious band-aid on his ruptured
portfolio. Adam had to see him--right then. Wasn't
about to spill the details over the phone. The market
would close in an hour and it was a now-or-never kind
of deal. Clive remembered looking at the book and
deciding to slip it into his briefcase that was on the
floor next to his desk.
He sighed, relieved and hurried to the snakeskin case.
The briefcase was propped against Clive's walnut
wastepaper basket. He saw a fragment of paper caught
in a seam at the top of the container and pulled it
out. It was a phone number, one he recognized as the
contact for another informant. It had been tucked in a
little pocket of the book.
No! He was not the kind of man who would put his
career, his political future, the meaning for his very
life in a trash can by mistake. His chest ached and he
plopped heavily onto the floor and opened the nitro
bottle again. Take two, they're small.
No one knew the book was valuable. If it had gone into
the trash--where next? All he had to do was follow its
trail to the dump or the landfill or the barge or
wherever the hell people took garbage these days.
It took less than three phone calls before he was on
his way out the door.
Clive was accustomed to a world of concrete and steel
and the wide-open spaces at the landfill unnerved him.
As did the great expanse of blue sky. There was a
stench in the air that--well, to be honest, he liked
it. It wasn't quite as strong as death--but close. If
the place hadn't been so exposed, so easy to
scrutinize, he might have considered it prime real
The acreage around him teemed with seagulls. They
screamed and flew at him, as if afraid he would snatch
their tasty tidbits. Not a chance, he muttered,
hurling blobs and globs of anything at them to drive
He gazed around the landscape, astonished and
disheartened by its sheer size and scope. According to
the guy at the gate, yesterday's trash from his
building, as well as several other buildings, was
right on top of the area where he stood.
Right. In any single spot he looked he could see ten
thousand flashes of blue and white, the colors on the
front of the book. And paper? It fluttered and waved
and tossed itself all around him.
It was then Clive noticed he was not alone. Movement
to his left and right and all over the landscape
caught his eye. A swarm of small figures, lithe and
rat like, scurried in and out of the mounds of trash.
They were clothed in rags, fabrics that blended and
melded with their surroundings, an odd camouflage of
cans and cereal boxes and wadded disposable diapers.
His breath caught in his throat. Who were they? What
were they doing here? Who authorized this ballsy
incursion onto his turf? One woman caught his eye. Her
direction was away from him but still, he'd have sworn
she was looking back, sizing him up, keeping him in
her sights at all times.
Something told him she had the book! Knew its value
and knew he had come to reclaim it. Hell, she might
even work for Daryl or those two assholes from the
Capital Building john.
He would follow her.
The sun was relentless. The flies were worse. What
compelled these people to search the mounds, moving
ever deeper and further into their rancid depths. It
was hours, he was sure of it, before the woman turned
and started back toward the gate.
By now he knew her habits.
She hummed--incessantly. Her fingers were nimble and
quick, sorting through items that baffled him by their
sheer proliferation. And yet, she made selections,
finding objects of apparent value that she deftly
stowed in a canvas bag she carried slung over her
She was aware of him. He was sure of it. But every
time she turned toward him, he would reach into the
garbage, as if intent on finding things she had
missed. Her clothes were remarkable, kind of flowing
and fluid and so much in motion he was convinced the
flies gave her a wide berth. Or maybe they were
repelled by her choice of color. Her top was designed
in a patterned silk, paisley he thought, and the
sleeves were loose and wide. The pant part of the
ensemble was wool, or some other heavy fabric, and
boasted a deep and rich plaid in earthen (garbage?)
The closer she got to the gate, the more her humming
turned to actual singing. He couldn't discern the
song, if in fact it was a song. Rather it was a stream
of words, tunelessly flung at the day and at him.
Once outside the landfill, she seemed to blend into
the buildings of the nondescript streets she chose. He
watched her as she moved stealthily from the shadow of
one structure to the next, thinking he could almost
see the blue and white book bouncing in her bag,
itching to leap from its confines and get back to him,
its rightful owner. What would she do with such
information? The bitch? The whore.
What gave her the right to read his precious book, to
try to piece together those fine, ammunition-like
details that shaped the destinies and futures of so
many people? As if she could use such information, as
if it fit her nasty paisley and plaid world.
He laughed and then quickly silenced his humor and
ducked into a doorway as she paused and looked as if
she might turn around. There would be time enough to
chuckle when the book was back in his hands, when his
careful planning and fastidious research was tucked in
the safe again.
If possible, the neighborhood got even worse. Rats
walked boldly in the open. Newspapers and cardboard
boxes rolled around him, urban tumbleweeds in a world
no longer human.
And yet the woman, crouched and bending into her life,
her circumstances, forged through the desolation,
walking toward a bridge overpass just ahead. Clive
glanced at the cars rushing east and west on top of
the bridge, vaguely aware that his own limo frequently
crossed this spot. He had never--not once--looked
down into this cavernous abyss.
Where did she think she was going? Taking his book?
His life's work? His guarantee for the future? He bent
down and picked up a brick. He would need to be
careful. This woman was crafty. And she was a thief.
Just as she slipped inside the shadow of the overpass,
Clive caught a glimpse of the book through her canvas
bag. And he heard it. It called to him. It did.
Wanting to come home, to tell its stories, hold its
subjects hostage and shape the days and destinies of
Just as he brought the brick down, hard and
repeatedly, in the shadows of the bridge, he finally
understood the woman's song. It was that stupid tune,
that insidious ditty, from an old Coke commercial.
Something about 'I want to teach the world to sing--in
perfect harmony.' Damn song had never made any sense
He dumped the contents of the bag out onto the ground.
Nothing. At least nothing besides a pile of paper
pictures--jaggedly torn from pages of newspapers and
magazines, and pulled off labels and boxes. The
pictures began to flutter away in the breeze. He
grabbed at them. What in the hell?
Babies. Young boys and girls. Mothers, fathers and
beautiful models. Old men and women. Dozens of
pictures of kittens and puppies and long-beaked birds.
Clive sank to the ground. What was the old bitch
thinking? Why would she walk so far and swelter in the
sun for hours just to collect these worthless scraps?
He looked around. The walls, almost the entire surface
of the underpass, were covered with a thousand
thousand faces. Just a patch on the far side of the
concrete structure was bare. The old woman would have
completed her task soon, maybe that very day.
Then he saw the candles. They were crude, made from
the fat and gelatinous debris found in the dump's
foodstuff, lighted with wicks that had once been
string or twine or ribbon. Shadows danced. The faces,
those hundreds and thousands upon thousands of faces
winked and grinned.
Clive stared at them. His chest throbbed. He reached
for the nitro, for the sanity and order of the world
up top. But before his hand could find the bottle, he
fell. And there he lay, face to face with that stupid
old woman. And the last thing he saw was her battered
and toothless smile.