Tuesday, March 6, 2012

MEMORIA. A Corporation of Lies (Chapter 1)

in the first post I promised you a few chapters from my new novel, Memoria. Today I post the first one.

When they learn to erase our memories...
When we dismiss violence and deceit as things of the past...
When wars become history we can't remember...
One man will rise against the new order!
Because he remembers who he truly is.

A Corporation of Lies

The author would like to express his sincere
appreciation to Tais Khulish, Yulian Zagorodny
and Sergei Grushko for their wealth of advice.

Chapter One

Frank didn't like the cab the moment he saw it.
The ancient Ford Victoria had tinted windows, a rusty rear fender, and a massive brush guard mounted on the bumper. Frank had a bad feeling about it. The car raised questions. First, what cab company would keep this rust bucket in their fleet? Second, what kind of taxi driver would so brazenly cold-shoulder his fellow cabbies? He'd pulled out of the cab line that stretched all the way to the airport exit, cutting off the car that had already started for Frank. Brakes screeching, the cab came to a halt by the curb.
The driver rolled down his window and yelled at Frank, his voice drowned out by an airbus landing in La Guardia. The plane's shadow darkened the road and the cars underneath. It crossed the faces of people waiting on the sidewalk, brushed the glass fa├žade of a newly restored building and fleeted away.
"What's there to think about? I'll do it for half the fare!" Frank heard once the whine of the jet's engine subsided.
He stepped toward the car, opened the door and looked inside, wincing at the smell of the leather upholstery. An unpleasant face looked back at him, its cheekbones high and eyes deeply set. Smooth skin was drawn tight over the man's skull, and a thick white scar ran from his right temple to the back of his head. It gave Frank the impression that the bully had slapped on some makeup before pulling in at the terminal exit.
Having said that... Frank had another look. The man's skin, although perfectly natural, looked too smooth to be real. What the hell? Judging by his license propped up against the dashboard, the driver wasn't even forty: not a bad age to start growing a bald patch, but way too early to lose all of one's facial hair.
"Get in," the baldie snapped.
Frank had another look at him and stepped back.
"I said, jump in," repeated the driver.
A spot of light fell on his face, causing the man's pupils to constrict. He looked up at the road in front of him, and Frank gave up his initial impression of the driver being a spaced-out junkie.
Behind Frank's back, unhappy voices tried to hurry the line along. Another cab pulled up by the sidewalk, causing the whole line of cars that snaked around the terminal's perimeter to edge forward.
"Just move it!" the driver croaked through his teeth, as if he had a cold.
He stuck out a sharp chin and turned in his leather seat. The cab behind him tooted and pulled too close, locking his bumper. Its front door swung open, letting out an indignant middle-aged heavyweight with a fat moustache.
The baldie tutted, annoyed, turned his smooth face to Frank and, unexpectedly, lunged across the cab as if he wanted to grab Frank's hand and drag him inside.
"You piece of—" the driver began, but Frank had already slammed the door shut, barely missing the man's fingers.
He looked around him at the people waiting, mumbled something about giving up his turn and headed for the mustached man's vehicle.
"I'll go with you, if it's okay."
In all honesty, he should have done something about the bald driver. He could have taken the cab, had the driver take him to the nearest police station and made a statement. Then it would be up to them to look into the suspicious cabbie. But Frank couldn't have gotten into the other cab even if he’d wanted to, because its inside was all done up in leather. And Frank was allergic to leather, to the point where a mere whiff of it made his eyes water and his nose run.
"Hey, get lost!" Frank heard the bald one's hoarse voice behind his back. He turned around.
"Get away, you!" The bald driver pushed aside a passenger who was trying to load his suitcase into the trunk." He waved to Frank. "It's your turn, ain't it?"
Frank chose to ignore him. The angry passenger picked up his suitcase and mumbled something. The bald driver slammed his fist into the man's shoulder. The crowd ouched and stepped back.
"I think I'm gonna teach him a lesson," the mustached heavyweight said.
"Don't bother," Frank said to him and added out loud, "I'll take care of it. I can always report him if I want to."
He marked down the Ford's plates and the company's logo and phone numbers on the trunk. Then he inspected the other cab's upholstery, got in and gave the driver his West Side address.
Frank was determined to let the bald man's bosses know about this. His poor conduct shouldn't be tolerated. Nor should Frank himself head for Memoria in order to erase the unpleasant incident from his mind. The bully had to get his comeuppance: be punished, demoted, fired — let him take his pick.
Of course, the man could always go to Memoria himself and erase the memories of his dismissal and the airport incident that had caused it. But it wouldn't help him much: his name would be blacklisted by all cab companies' databases, or maybe even the NY police department files. That would be more than enough. The La Guardia pig would never be able to appear in public again; he'd lose his driver's license, and no amount of Memoria wipe would help it. He could erase his memories every day if he wanted to, but every time the bald son of a bitch tried to get a job, the incident would come up until the day the sanction was lifted.
With a smirk, Frank reached for the cell phone in his pocket. After a brief hesitation — whom to call first? — he dialed his home number. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Kathleen had remembered his arrival and was now waiting for him there?
The phone started ringing. Theirs was a strange relationship indeed, Kathleen’s and his, nothing normal about it. Frank shifted the phone to the other hand and leaned back. High time they sat and talked about it. He needed to finally know her full name, her cell phone number, and have some idea of her job and address. Asking about her parents would be a good thing, too. Kathleen was an intelligent and educated girl, all designer clothes and sports cars, but she'd never shown off or spoken about herself. You couldn't expect a successful lawyer like himself, a government advisor, to keep dating a girl he'd met six months ago at some Mayoral event without even knowing her full name.
Frank tried to remember when exactly he'd given her the key to his place... Was it their second date? Third? Come to think of it, it had been her idea to begin with. Pretty irrelevant, but still, they had to talk it all over. Frank didn't look forward to falling victim to a jealous husband or anything like that, but better safe than sorry. In the light of his position, and especially his potential promotion to a post in the economics department, it wouldn't be a good idea to take his relationships lightly. So he needed to weigh up all the pros and cons and approach their future discussion in some seriousness. He had to practice what he was going to say and how he'd say it — his arguments, his body language... Then they'd decide where their relationship could go from there.
Under the gloomy sky, Queens' squatty buildings flashed past the cab window. Shame if it was going to rain: he'd been looking forward to a breath of fresh air. Provided Kathleen picked up. Provided nothing had come up to keep him from seeing her.
The phone kept ringing. What a pain. It looked like he would have to e-mail her instead. He had no other way of contacting her. Normally, she received his e-mails and either came whenever she saw fit, or wrote back setting a date.
Her voice echoed in the receiver.
"Hello? Frank?" She sounded hoarse and nervous, breathing in short fits, and sniffling.
"Oh, hi," he said. "You okay? I thought you'd given up on me."
"I'm fine, thanks," she sighed.
Frank's heart missed a beat. Something had to be wrong. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I got soaked in the rain so I'm not feeling very well, sorry. You'd better tell me how it went in Washington DC."
Her voice was softer now and her breathing, more even.
Frank glanced at the driver. You couldn't tell what he was thinking: no reaction was evident on the back of his head, and the part of the wide face seen in the rear-view mirror didn't betray any emotion, either. He kept his eyes on the road, steering with one hand and stroking his moustache with the other.
"It didn't go well, I'm afraid," Frank said. "Not for us, anyway. The talks have been rescheduled."
"So what's so bad about that?" Kathleen's voice asked, caring and sweet.
She was good at it. You could trust her to find the right words of support when a man could use some. She knew how to strike the right note in a conversation, ignoring her own problems.
"Just my future... My career, and this promotion, too... I've been laying the ground for this deal for a long time... too long, in fact. Now it's back to square one."
"I don't think so! It wasn't your fault that the talks didn't go through, was it?"
"No, it wasn't." Frank could almost see Kathleen's foxy smile and, unconsciously, his lips started to form into a smile, too. "I've no idea how it happened..."
"So you see! Your career is in no danger."
Her words soothed him a little. Frank had even forgotten about the bald cab driver, let alone the failed talks. Kathleen was the best pill ever. Even her voice sounded soft and musical.
"Frank, I miss you. Please come soon."
In his mind, he saw her lying on their king-size bed in her designer lace underwear — the girl wouldn't wear anything less, or at least he'd never witnessed it. Her groomed skin glowed golden against snow-white sheets; the dark lace teased, promising passion and pleasure.
He choked, swallowed and felt his crotch bulge.
"I will. I'm coming now," he croaked.
"Please do," she paused. "Oh, and this old lady next door, she dropped in..."
"Mrs. Fletcher? What did she want?"
"She still can't get the hang of her remote. She needs help to set up the cable channels."
"Did you do it for her?"
"No. I didn't let her in. She didn't seem too eager to see me, anyway. She said, she'd better wait for you to come back."
"Looks like I'll have to pay her a visit."
"Just make sure you pay me a visit first."
He got the hint in her voice. "Sure."
She hung up. Frank lingered for a couple of seconds, then slowly exhaled and turned to the window.
They'd already left the Queens' neighborhood behind. The cab was crossing Queensboro Bridge. To their left, barely half a mile away, rose Manhattan. If traffic permitted, he'd be there in minutes. Along the East River bank, towers stood in ruins; their burned-out, bomb-smashed skeletons crowded the ocean shore, black squares gaping where windows had been.
The only memory of the city war that had ravaged the center of New York. Try and erase this out of the memories of millions.
They hadn't tried to. Yet.
From afar, the concrete-and-glass stumps looked as if they could fold any moment like card houses and then slide down the shore into the ocean at the slightest poke. And once their remnants were done with, you'd be able to see the towers of the New Financial Borough in the process of construction. There, the enormous edifice of Memoria HQ had already arisen: the corporation that had stopped the bloodshed thirty years back. It was Memoria that had given people hope and a sense of security. Had it not been for Memoria, the whole Eastern shore from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico would still be engulfed in flames, fighting the resources war.
Bellville's army — migrants from Texas, New Mexico and other Western states — had wanted to secure their own grasp on the country. But they had lost the oil war. Jacque Bellville himself had been tried and executed in Washington. His entourage had fled abroad. Those of their combatants who had failed to escape had been locked in migrant camps, stripped of their right to vote and subjected to round-the-clock monitoring through CCTV cameras and the personal electronic bracelets that Memoria had enforced on the entire population.
Frank's gaze followed the enormous orange spot of Memoria's flag fluttering over the corporation's tower.
"Jesus. Things seem to be improving much faster in Washington. Most of their buildings are already restored. The Capitol building is as good as new. Memoria branches are mushrooming on every corner. And there aren't so many migrants left there, you know, most have already gotten their citizen status."
The cabbie braked at a red light, turned round with a smirk and showed Frank his electronic bracelet. An orange light flashed on the man's right wrist which meant that he'd fought for his citizenship in General Hopper's squads.
Frank lowered his eyes, embarrassed. His own bracelet was flashing with a little green light which meant that he'd been born after the war. His own citizenship was an automatic after-war privilege.
"You don't know how lucky you are, kid," The cabbie clasped the steering wheel and moved off on the light turning green. "Having a house, a job — a girl..." He glanced at Frank through the rear-view mirror, grinned and added in his strong, low voice, "You never had to lose your friends or family."
"But why—" Frank stopped short.
It had been a long time since he'd had a chance to talk to a veteran who'd chosen to preserve his war memories. All the old people he knew —  those who still remembered the battles between Hopper and Bellville — had died since, or had Memoria erase their recollections. Somewhere in this city lived Frank's old boxing coach. Like so many others, he too must have visited one of the corporation's numerous branches, having forgotten the war and with it, his old students. Frank wasn't even sure the man still lived here — he could have relocated from New York for all Frank knew. His coach used to talk a lot about freedom, the word acquiring many new meanings through his interpretation. In the young Frank's eyes, he was the wisest man that ever lived, his guru and his role model.
How long had it been since Frank had seen him last? Had to be nearly a decade. Occasional phone calls and seasonal greetings didn't count. He absolutely had to see him. Make him meet Kathleen, maybe...
Frank rubbed his face hard and interlocked his fingers. Wasn't he a jerk, after all? How could he forget the man who was, in fact, his second father? What if the man failed to remember him?
"Why what?" the ageing cabbie squinted in the rear-view mirror. "Why won't I get rid of my past?"
Frank nodded and unclasped his fingers.
"When half the civilian population happily erase their memories, apparently content with living below the bread line," the veteran looked back to the road, "when I live next door to a migrant camp packed with those motherfuckers..." he cut himself short, locked his hands on the steering wheel and hunched over it, tucking his head into his wrestler's shoulders, wide and sloping.
Well, well, well... Frank leaned against the door keeping an eye on the cabbie and wondering what this sudden candor could mean and whether the cabbie was indeed candid and not demented. The latter seemed more likely. Success is never blamed, so the victors in that war guarded their presidentially granted right to preserve their memories. They didn't have to visit Memoria three times a year, like all the others had, and the recollections of the past war remained entirely their own business.
Still, the old veteran had a point: landing a well-paid job these days took a lot of luck. Having a place to live, a family and children was taking on quite a strain. He really shouldn't lose Kathleen. He should try and talk to her, maybe suggest moving in together — and why not for keeps?
For a split second, he wanted to stick to the status quo: what was the point in trying to dig up her past if they might not share a future? But today, it was different. Today, things seemed to fall into a pattern. He hadn't fallen for the bullying cabbie's abuse, he'd remembered his old boxing coach, he'd realized that he loved Kathleen and worked up the courage to propose... Yes, loved was the right word.
Frank couldn't help smiling.
"Here we are, kid," The cabbie pointed at the meter.
"Would you mind waiting a bit?" Frank reached into his pocket for his wallet. "Ten, fifteen minutes? I'll go get my girlfriend," He handed the man his fare.
"No problem, kid," The mustached face softened. The man ran his thick strong fingers over his moustache and added, "I suggest you pay Memoria a visit, too."
Frank pursed his lips waiting for him to continue. The cabbie shook his head,
"Don't give me all that about you having already done it," he reached between the seats, smoothed out Frank's creased coat lapel and patted him on the shoulder. "Not a good idea to ignore your duty. You know you've got to visit them three times a year. They run a free promotion now, too: you might still make it if you don't put it off for too long. Now off you go! I'll wait for you right here."
Frank scrambled out of the cab and wrapped his coat tighter around his body. Strange man, this veteran. He seemed to be able to read Frank's mind.
The first raindrops hit the sidewalk. Frank glanced up at the stormy clouds thickening in the dirt-gray sky and hurried inside the lobby of his apartment building. He couldn't make it past the entrance: the hallway was blocked by the backs of newspapermen, TV reporters and photographers busy setting up their cameras and lighting.
They crowded into the lobby blocking out the reception desk. Frank tried to bypass them through a narrow opening to their left. When he finally made it to the desk, the doorman produced two days' back mail and suggested he hurried to the elevators if he didn't want to have to take the stairs: the lobby was about to close for a press conference.
Frank was just about to ask him what all that media fuss was about and who called the press conference, but two media men complete with a camera and the ID badges of an international news channel beat him to it and demanded the doorman's attention. After a hesitant wait, Frank looked at the media crowd. It had perked up, and Frank hurried to the elevators. He'd find out what it was all about later. Upstairs, Kathleen was waiting and he couldn't think of much else but her.
When he left the elevator, he saw that his front door was slightly ajar. His first thought was about old Mrs. Fletcher next door: more than likely, she'd called on him again and Kathleen must have helped her to set up the cable remote. The poor old bag couldn't live without her TV, applying for every talk show and dreaming of her fifteen minutes of fame.
Frank entered the hall and removed his coat. Kathleen's purse was missing from the shelf under the coat-rack mirror where she always left it. In its place, he found a note: "Kitchen".
A puzzled Frank forgot to close the front door and moved along the corridor, taking off his jacket. He turned to the right and entered the kitchen. On the kitchen table sat a bottle of red wine and two glasses.
Frank smiled. This was so unlike Kathleen. He hung his jacket on a chair and took a corkscrew out of the drawer. Apparently, their restaurant date would have to wait. Same went for the cabbie. Kathleen was easily aroused, fiery in bed, and she climaxed quickly. He'd make her groan with exhaustion as she readied to come, and then—
He pulled the cork out and tilted the bottle. The red bubbly warbled in the glass.
Then she would get ready — shower, makeup, whatever — while he went downstairs and asked the cabbie if he could wait a bit longer than planned.
Frank left the bottle on the table, lifted the full glasses and headed for the bedroom. His hands trembled slightly with arousal. He stopped in front of the door and took a swig. Excellent wine. He raised the glass against the light, admiring the bubbles coming to the surface; kicked the door open and entered.
Kathleen lay on the king-size bed in her lacy lingerie and stockings, her arms spread wide. The electronic bracelet was missing from her right hand. Her raven-black curls tumbled across the pillow, her head turned to the doorway. Her glassy dead eyes stared at Frank.
For a second or two he stood there staring at the girl, unable to take it in, the wine glasses in his hands. His ears were blocked, his throat, tight. Finally, with a whimper, he rushed to the bed. The wine went all over his shirt and the sheets. He dropped the glasses, lifted Kathleen's head and looked into her eyes, praying for her to blink and say, hi there! But it didn't happen.
She had a tie wrapped around her throat — her own gift to Frank before he'd left for Washington. The pale skin under the tie showed a thin blue stripe.
She'd been strangled.
When? Why? By whom?
Something rustled behind his back. Frank turned round. Mrs. Fletcher stood in the doorway, the cable remote in hand, squinting nearsightedly. After a second, her eyes widened, filling with terror.
She must have thought she'd understood — but she misunderstood when she saw Kathleen's body and the red spots on Frank's shirt and the bedclothes. She must have thought it was blood, but what difference did it make now? Frank lifted his hand, and his wine-spotted fingers trembled, betraying his desperation. He opened his mouth and looked at Kathleen. No difference whatsoever. She was dead for good.
When he turned back, Mrs. Fletcher was already gone. Screaming her head off, she shuffled along the corridor, hurrying away.
Frank collapsed on the edge of the bed, lifted the radiophone off the bedside table and dialed 911.

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