Brody normally found these gatherings unremarkable and unpleasant—an aristocratic menagerie peddled and worn like loose change. Like most of these affairs, people paraded around masquerading in their pretense outwardly dim and stunted. Some even overtly flaunting it like an adjudication. This circle was an overwrought node—everyone infected. He learned long ago to view them as a novel or film he was required to review; its actual production process so entirely degraded that the eventual product stood empty and garishly ornamented like a bad commercial sequeled and bastardized to the point of absurdity; the most-recent clone in a long-line of clones, its DNA corrupted from the start; hundreds of years of incestuous couplings born out of indolence, decadence, and nepotism.
And, his father was here.
Layne, though, was nowhere to be found.
Searching for Lucretia in hopes Layne was nearby, he found her captivating the curiosity of those few surrounding her.
Lucretia Alexandria Summers was fascinating, and dangerous. He would need to crawl carefully lest she cut him. As he studied those around her, Lucretia noticed his wandering gaze and winked. This didn’t surprise him. She was most likely the originator of the dossier on him. Word had it she played with those before she bested, like a cat to a mouse.
He wasn’t afraid to be caught looking for Layne. He didn’t deny that he wanted to see her again. She was fresh in his mind—a recurring thought, a medley of emotion and peace and rebellion so unjust he wanted to sit with her in silence and talk till morning then stare at her as the sun rose around them. That feeling hadn’t left him since he first sat down with her. She poked and prodded him so cleanly and cleverly he wanted more.
That was uncomfortable; a rush electrifying and harsh; a force of water so strong, the current sent him under and took his breath; exhilarating; dangerous. He rode the rapids on the Upper Gauley in West Virginia, the Pacuare in Costa Rica, the Colorado, the Tully in Queensland, Australia, and rivers in six other countries, but this? In his forty-three years on this roiling blue pellet hurtling through the blackness, he never experienced that. He purposely avoided it.
Elevated again by that violent fleeting feeling that left him pale, flushed, heart racing, like the wings of a hummingbird, he backed away from it slowly as the adversaries circled and approached.
Broderick Alistair Blake the second cozied up next to him slipping in so close elbows brushed. Both stood staring at the spectacle around them returning the occasional nod of salutation and offer of a handshake to those that ignored the warnings; the stern broodiness of the Blake expressions that would normally send a more timid person skittering away in caution.
“If you’ll excuse me, I was talking to my son,” Broderick Blake chastised those who nodded obsequiously and apologetically before slinking off to accost someone else with their handmade drivel. Some got the message when the two Blake men turned inward towards each other away from the party guests indicating their intention to hold a private discussion. This didn’t stop them; entitlement afforded the willfully obtuse a measure of deportment they passed on as civility; witless and an ugly shade of presence rendered them upper-class—they were not in the proper sense. He tried not to be too moralistic in their presence as some of them could easily sniff out the contempt, like blood hounds. It was difficult, reminding himself that not everyone in this bunch was an overt caricature of evil; some assembly was required.
Hypocritical? Probably. He really didn’t care. He didn’t like the majority of them. They polluted the system with the vomit of their abundance and destroyed lives with their gluttony of greed. They were small pointy pebbles in a tightly worn shoe. He wore it seldom, reluctantly and uncomfortably.
Then there was his father.
“Why are you here?”
“Work,” Brody stated bluntly without commenting further.
“At which you are as conscientious and astute as ever. Are you acquainted with Lucretia Summers?”
Looking him directly in the eyes to avert any suspicions: “Yes?”
Brody received the dad approval nod given so rarely, more worthy than a Pulitzer. “She would be a good match for you.”
His father’s approval of Lucretia signaled his endorsement of the highest order. The elder Blake saw opportunity; the merging of two elite individuals of one social class to form an empire—an empire far-reaching that Brody likened to a virus, a malignant one across industries and countries. Brody’s refusal to join the family business meant his father searched for a partner for him that would—someone talented to run that business and continue its success long after.
Having observed him over the years and been subjected to his machinations, he knew how his father’s mind worked consistently unfolding the next connection bridging them to others more lofty. He coupled these modest manipulations sandwiching them between the praise, leveraging the little things of the past into giant leaps of what he believed was Brody’s future and Broderick’s legacy.
Legacy was a trigger to men like Broderick. Mention their legacy and they became errant and twitchy; some more calculated and nuanced; others overtly erratic to the point of hysteria. He deduced that this was a predominantly gendered trait constructed and manufactured, this hysteria. Brody branded it as such for obvious reasons usually in front of said persona who proceeded to demonstrate a hyper-display of such. This machismo progressed more dramatically into darker transgressions for many. His father directed that latency—as errant as it was—into an order codified and categorized, which made him more Machiavellian. History personified these traits as gendered virtues; Brody thought otherwise. The ridiculousness of it all swept over him and he shoved it away so he could focus on the crowd and finding Layne.
“I hear you’re obsessed with an interesting new case.”
This got Brody’s attention. He took a drink and gazed into the crowd suppressing the tingles of unease that snaked through his senses. He felt his father’s eyes skim over him. His lizard-brain struggled to escape. He smothered it in the veneer of so what and shrugged appearing disinterested and bored. He knew his father had him watched. He didn’t know how closely and covertly that scrutiny was till now. This carelessness would inevitably come back to haunt him, he was sure of it. If certain people found out about his investigation, this one-man gig would turn into an agency-wide shitshow. He didn’t want that. He wanted Layne and Lucretia to himself. He had never been this eager for a case before now and these two fascinating women were at the core of his concern and curiosity.
“You have a small tell when you’re anxious. You’ve worked diligently over the years with my help to rid yourself of these consequential details on the aspects of your character. To the normal person, this tell would not register. I, however, am your father and not a normal person. I expect you to find and rid yourself of it or else you will fail in whatever it is you’re trying to hide. Or protect.”
He walked away.
Brody discovered Layne accidentally. He expected her to be dressed in the required attire for guests and events such as these necessitated. She wasn’t. As he walked by a servant absently acknowledging with a small smile—quiet and courteous as he had willed himself to do at a young age in an act of kindness and a rebellion to his class after reading Karl Marx and recognizing his lot in life—it wasn’t until he passed her that he realized who that servant was. A transition that nobody here would see through because these people never bothered looking servants in the eyes or interacting with them on more than a cursory level, Layne carried the disguise effectively. He had to gather his wits about him once he recognized her so jolted was he at her appearance out of his mind conjured before him like a specter.
And just like that, she disappeared; merged back into the crowd like a shadow, but not before he had a chance to watch her. So mesmerized, he wondered if he was enchanted by something dark, mystical, and powerful. He heard rumors that Lucretia was a witch, but dismissed it as racist misogyny intended to put her in her place and banish her back to wherever said assholes thought she belonged, even as American as she was. Regardless, he didn’t believe it. He looked for an excuse behind emotions he didn’t think he would ever feel, rationalizing the improbable. Emotions he was curious to explore.
Brody was ready for her when she reappeared. Stylishly adorned in evening wear he would categorize as indicative and reminiscent of her personality—what little he knew of her—the ensemble dissolved into lots of skin and a mixture of matte greys when the light shined on her welcoming and honoring her curves; curves he considered classic and natural.
She was lovely. Breathlessly lovely.
As sinister as it sounded, he liked watching her. He wouldn’t deny it.
Joining her on the veranda, they conversed on and off while eating and watching the crowd; the ocean relentlessly inhaling and exhaling at their backs. He feared he stumbled strategically when he mentioned an investigation. This didn’t seem to spook her. Her philosophical digressions presented him with a different side of her; one that challenged him to think and heightened his attraction. Her past a mystery and her socio-political affiliations unknown—besides Lucretia—he decided to converge on those topics carefully. Who he was, where he worked, and the volatility of the subjects prompted anxieties elevated and tropes clichéd justly with cause presently. These skepticisms he would not deny and understood completely. Today’s world was a danger more so than yesterday’s world; complications unfolded into single sentences of treachery given briefly without critical thought and concern to the ambiguities of life and liberties.
This, he knew; this, he witnessed; this, he was a reluctant ingredient.
The political intrigues broadened and became slippery, as did the facts and rule of law. Facts weren’t truths and truths weren’t facts. Government corruption uncontrollable. Freedoms waned for the most vulnerable. Data and wealth represented power. Transparency assigned exclusively to those deemed hostile to the state and much too exploitable thanks to Silicon Valley and the tech world led by the villainies of Facebook and the like. Data—easily manipulated—became crimes. Due process emerged as a privilege granted only to the wealthy—and men. Protests labeled riots and riots quickly dispatched; what little there were and as much as they could be under a hashtag revolution. Americans were exhausted from late stage capitalism and an austerity that negated any chance for a life beyond work and sleep. They lacked the much needed ire that came with a looming autocracy slash monarchy. Too battered and drained from the inordinately high amount of malfeasance pervading the 24-hour news cycle, the bourgeoisie apparently didn’t care as long as it didn’t inconvenience them.
Then there was this.
Brody watched the performative prayers led by the least likely of saints known for his debauches and perfidies. He chuckled at the improbability of it all. “Kafka couldn’t write a more absurd scene.”
“The prayer or the cockroaches leading them?”
The chuckle became a full-throated laugh: “Both,” he said sipping his tea.
“Not a religious man, eh?”
“Not this religion. Not these gods. You?”
“Not even close.” A pause pregnant with hesitation. “Do you read philosophy?”
“The Stoics, Socrates, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bentham, Sartre, Camus, the pragmatists and other atheists and existentialists. You?”
“Spinoza wasn’t an atheist.”
“No. He delivered the crack that breached the whole though and that kind of intellectual courage and rebellion is good enough for me. The ostracism for a just heresy deserves honors posthumously. Many.”
“Depends on the heresy.” She gave him a long look that bordered on thoughtful—one in which he was an intricate puzzle worthy of study. “And political philosophers?”
He weighed the path of prudence; it was boring so he jumped. “Marx, Chomsky, Guevara, and all the other radicals and existentialists I stated. Rand—an atheist who had some good philosophical questions—was much too miserly and churlish for my tastes. A product of her Russian upbringing, I’m sure.”
Brody saw the humor dancing in her eyes. Her smile grew as he talked. “Fascinating. That’s a lot of anarchists for a billionaire’s son.”
His smile vanished: “Prefaced as a result of being. Don’t mistake the son for the father.”
Her attention drawn away from him towards the center of the commotion: “Then there’s that.”
The flock of the newly formed monarch gathered round. While one pretty fledgling received the attention and adulations of the patriarch, the oldest grappled with his insignificance. “Yes. Some daddy issues are significantly larger even more so than my own. I hear he fashions himself a philanthropist now to stave off the critics and talk of corruption.”
Her humor disappeared like his: “Philanthropy is used to launder reputations and protect power, absolute or otherwise—the height of corruption. All power demands critical analysis and interpretation. Regardless of who they are or what party or ideological system they say they belong to.”
“’The world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed,’” he quoted. “Have you read the Panama Papers?”
The subject seemed to stoke her ire: “This world was built on rules and lies written by wealthy men in power. You are a man of power.” This was not so much an accusation but a questionable rendering.
“I work for a government agency. I’m an apolitical civil servant.”
Her laugh flippant: “Of course you are. You can afford to be. Bad guys don’t normally think they’re the bad guys. They think they’re the good guys.”
Derision and shame crawled into his tone: “I’m not one of these people.”
“The cossacks work for the tsar.”
Silence. He looked long and hard at her. “And what are you?”
She smiled: “Presently? An anarchist.”
A warm feeling of trust enveloped him. She rewarded his honesty with some of her own. Caution warranted, he preferred pulling that trust close, protecting and watching it grow. Instead, he flaunted and challenged her with it. “And yet here you are.”
“Why? Am I work?” He asked softly.
Another smile and a genuine laugh. Her humor returned: “Am I? Warfare is based on deception.”
He mirrored her regard: “Yes. Yes, it is.”
Shortly thereafter, she excused herself to which he replied “Only if you promise to return?”
“If I don’t, come find me.”
© 2020 Alex Shea/Pamela Gay Mullins