William Ford Gibson
15 - Box
MARLY DREAMED OF ALAN, dusk in a wildflower field, and he cradled her head, then caressed and broke her neck. Lay there unmoving but she knew what he was doing. He kissed her all over. He took her money and the keys to her room. The stars were huge now, fixed above the bright fields, and she could still feel his hands on her neck..
She woke in the coffee-scented morning and saw the squares of sunlight spread across the books on Andrea’s table, heard Andrea’s comfortingly familiar morning cough as she lit a first cigarette from the stove’s front burner. She shook off the dark colors of the dream and sat up on Andrea’s couch, hugging the dark red quilt around her knees. After Gnass, after the police and the reporters, she’d never dreamed of him. Or if she did, she’d guessed, she somehow censored the dreams, erased them before she woke. She shivered, although it was already a warm morning, and went into the bathroom. She wanted no more dreams of Alain.
“Alain armed?” Andrea divided the omelet and slid half onto Marly’s plate. “What a bizarre idea. It would be like… like arming a penguin.” They both laughed. “Alain is not the type,” Andrea said “He’d shoot his foot off in the middle of some passionate declaration about the state of art and the amount of the dinner bill. He’s a big shit, Alain, but that’s hardly news. If I were you, I’d expend a bit more worry on this Paco. What reason do you have for accepting that he works for Virek?” She took a bite of omelet and reached for the salt.
Marly watched Andrea eat her half of the omelet, letting her own grow cold on the plate How could she explain, about the sense she’d had, walking from the Louvre? The conviction that something surrounded her now, monitoring her with relaxed precision; that she had become the focus of at least a part of Virek’s empire. “He’s a very wealthy man,” she began.
“Virek?” Andrea put her knife and fork down on the plate and took up her coffee. “I should say he is. If you believe the journalists, he’s the single wealthiest individual, period. As rich as some zaibatsu. But there’s the catch, really: is he an individual? In the sense that you are, or I am? No. Aren’t you going to eat that?”
“It’s a history of the high-orbit industrial clans. A man at the University of Nice did it. Your Virek’s even in it, come to think; he’s cited as a counterexample, or rather as a type of parallel evolution. This fellow at Nice is interested in the paradox of individual wealth in a corporate age. in why it should still exist at all. Great wealth, I mean. He sees the high-orbit clans, people like the Tessier-Ashpools, as a very late variant on traditional patterns of aristocracy, late because the corporate mode doesn’t really allow for an aristocracy.” She put her cup down on her plate and carried the plate to the sink “Actually, now that I’ve started to describe it, it isn’t that interesting. There’s a great deal of very gray prose about the nature of Mass Man. With caps, Mass Man. He’s big on caps Not much of a stylist.” She spun the taps and water hissed out through the filtration unit.
“He says, if I remember all this correctly, and I’m not at all certain that I do, that Virek is an even greater fluke than the industrial clans in orbit. The clans are trans-generational, and there’s usually a fair bit of medicine involved: cryogenics, genetic manipulation, various ways to combat aging. The death of a given clan member, even a founding member, usually wouldn’t bring the clan, as a business entity. to a crisis point. There’s always someone to step in, someone waiting. The difference between a clan and a corporation, however, is that you don’t need to literally marry into a corporation
Andrea shrugged. “That’s like a lease. It isn’t the same thing. It’s job security, really. But when your Herr Virek dies, finally, when they run out of room to enlarge his vat, whatever, his business interests will lack a logical focus. At that point, our man in Nice has it, you’ll see Virek and Company either fragment or mutate, the latter giving us the Something Company and a true multinational, yet another home for capital-M Mass Man.” She wiped her plate, rinsed it, dried it. and placed it in the pine rack beside the sink “He says that’s too bad, in a way, because’ there are so few people left who can even see the edge.”
“The edge of the crowd. We’re lost in the middle, you and I Or I still am, at any rate.” She crossed the kitchen and put her hands on Marly’s shoulders “You want to take care in this. A part of you is already much happier, but now I see that I could have brought that about myself, simply by arranging a little lunch for you with your pig of a former lover The rest of it, I’m not sure I think our academic’s theory is invalidated by the obvious fact that Virek and his kind are already far from human. I want you to be careful…” Then she kissed Marly’s cheek and went off to her work as an assistant editor in the fashionably archaic business of printing books.
She spent the morning at Andrea’s, with the Braun, viewing the holograms of the seven works. Each piece was extraordinary in its own way, but she repeatedly returned to the box Virek had shown her first. If I had the original here, she thought, and removed the glass, and one by one removed the objects inside, what would be left? Useless things, a frame of space, perhaps a smell like dust.
She sprawled on the couch, the Braun resting on her stomach, and stared into the box. It ached It seemed to her that the construction evoked something perfectly, but it was an emotion that lacked a name. She ran her hands through the bright illusion, tracing the length of the fluted, avian bone.
She was certain that Virek had already assigned an ornithologist the task of identifying the bird from whose wing that bone had come And it would be possible to date each object with the greatest precision, she supposed. Each tab of holofiche also housed an extensive report on the known origin of each piece, but something in her had deliberately avoided these. It was sometimes best, when you came to the mystery that was art, to come as a child. The child saw things that were too evident, too obvious for the trained eye.
She put the Braun down on the low table beside the couch and crossed to Andrea’s phone, intending to check the time. She was meeting Paco at one, to discuss the mechanics of Alain’s payment. Alain had told her he would phone her at Andrea’s at three. When she punched for the time service, an automatic recap of satellite news strobed across the screen: a JAL shuttle had disintegrated during reentry over the Indian Ocean, investigators from the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis had been called in to examine the site of a brutal and apparently pointless bombing in a drab New Jersey residential suburb, militiamen were supervising the evacuation of the southern quadrant of New Bonn following the discovery, by construction workers, of two undetonated wartime rockets believed to be armed with biological weapons, and official sources in Arizona were denying Mexico’s accusation of the detonation of a small-scale atomic or nuclear device near the Sonora border… As she watched, the recap cycled and the simulation of the shuttle began its fire-death again. She shook her head, tapping the button. It was noon.
Summer had come, the sky hot and blue above Paris, and she smiled at the smell of good bread and black tobacco. Her sense of being observed had receded now, as she walked from the metro to the address Paco had given her. Faubourg St. Honoré. The address seemed vaguely familiar. A gallery, she thought.
Yes. The Roberts. The owner an American who operated three galleries in New York as well. Expensive, but no longer quite chic. Paco was waiting beside an enormous panel on which were layered, beneath a thick and uneven coat of varnish, hundreds of small square photographs, the kind produced by certain very old fashioned machines in train stations and bus terminals. All of them seemed to be of young girls. Automatically, she noted the name of the artist and the work’s title: Read Us the Book of the Names of the Dead.
“I suppose you understand this sort of thing,” the Spaniard said glumly. He wore an expensive-looking blue suit cut in Parisian business style, a white broadcloth shirt, and a very English-looking tie, probably from Charvet He didn’t look at all like a waiter now. There was an Italian bag of black ribbed rubber slung over his shoulder “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I sometimes feel as though this, this culture, is entirely a trick. A ruse. All my life I have served Señor, in one guise or another, you understand? And my work has not been without its satisfactions, moments of triumph But never, when he involved me with this business of ah, have I felt any satisfaction. He is wealth itself. The world is filled with objects of great beauty. And yet Señor pursues… He shrugged.
“Why did you choose this gallery for our meeting?” “Señor’s agent purchased one of the boxes here. Haven’t you read the histories we provided you with in Brussels?” “No,” she said. “It might interfere with my intuition.
He led her across the room and through a doorway. A graying, heavyset Frenchman in a rumpled corduroy suit was speaking into the handset of a phone. On the phone’s screen she saw columns of letters and figures. The day’s quotations on the New York market.
“Ah,” the man said, “Estevez. Excuse me. Only a moment. He smiled apologetically and returned to his conversation. Marly studied the quotations Pollock was down again. This, she supposed, was the aspect of art that she had the most difficulty understanding. Picard, if that was the man’s name, was speaking with a broker in New York, arranging the purchase of a certain number of “points” of the work of a particular artist. A “point” might be defined in any number of ways, depending on the medium involved, but it was almost certain that Picard would never see the works he was purchasing. If the artist enjoyed sufficient status, the originals were very likely crated away in some vault, where no one saw them at all. Days or years later, Picard might pick up that same phone and order the broker to sell.
Marly’s gallery had sold originals. There was relatively little money in it, but it had a certain visceral appeal. And, of course, there had been the chance that one would get lucky. She had convinced herself that she’d gotten very lucky indeed when Alain had arranged for the forged Cornell to surface as a wonderful, accidental find. Cornell had his place on the broker’s board, and his “points” were very expensive.
“Yes,” Picard said “We had displayed the work in our New York rooms, and it had attracted a number of bids. We decided to give it its day in Paris, however,” - he beamed - “and your employer made our decision most worthwhile. How is Herr Virek, Estevez? We have not seen him in several weeks.
Marly glanced quickly at Paco, but his dark face was smooth, utterly controlled “Señor is very well, I would think,” he said. “Excellent,” said Picard, somewhat too enthusiastically. He turned to Marly. “A marvelous man. A legend. A great patron. A great scholar.”
He put on a pair of mirrored Porsche glasses. “As accidental as that sort of death ever is,” he said. “We have no way of knowing when or how he obtained the piece We located it, here, eight months ago, and all’ our attempts to work backward end with Roberts, and Roberts has been dead for a year Picard neglected to tell you that they very nearly lost the thing. Roberts kept it in his country house, along with a number of other things that his survivors regarded as mere curiosities. The whole lot came close to being sold at public auction. Sometimes I wish it had been.”
“No,” he said, “but approximately a year before his death, we know that he made application for membership in the Institut de l’Art Brut, here in Paris, and arranged to become a patron of the Aeschmann Collection in Hamburg”
“We are reasonably certain,” Paco continued, taking her elbow and guiding her around a corner, into a side street, “that he made no attempt to use the resources of either, unless he employed an intermediary, and we regard that as unlikely. Señor, of course, has employed several dozen scholars to sweep the records of both institutions. To no avail…”
Now he led her into a chrome-trimmed barn of a place, glittering with mirrors, bottles, and arcade games. The mirrors lied about the depth of the room; at its rear, she could see the reflected pavement, the legs of pedestrians, the flash of sunlight on a hubcap. Paco nodded to a lethargic-looking man behind the bar and took her hand, leading her through the tightly packed shoal of round plastic tables.
“You can take your call from Alain here,” he said. “We have arranged to reroute it from your friend’s apartment.” He drew a chair out for her, an automatic bit of professional courtesy that made her wonder if he might actually once have been a waiter, and placed his bag on the tabletop.
“But he won’t see that We’ve generated a digital image of your face and the required background We’ll key that to the image on this phone “He took an elegant modular unit from the bag and placed it in front of her. A paper thin polycarbon screen unfurled silently from the top of the unit and immediately grew rigid. She had once watched a butterfly emerge into the world, and seen the transformation of its drying wings. “How is that done?” she asked, tentatively touching the screen. It was like thin steel.
The phone purred discreetly He positioned it more carefully in front of her, stepped to the far side of the table, and said, “Your call. Remember, you are at home!” He reached forward and brushed a titanium-coated stud.
“How are you, Marly? I trust you’ve gotten the money we discussed?” She could see that he was wearing a jacket of some kind, dark, but she could make out no details. “Your roommate could do with a lesson in housecleaning,” he said, and seemed to be peering back over her shoulder.
“Do I?” For some reason, now, she saw the panel in the Roberts, all those faces Read Us the Book of the Names of the Dead. All the Marlys, she thought all the girls she’d been through the long season of youth.
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