James Castle was going home for the holidays. His dark basement suite on Dupont wasn’t much of a home, but it was a huge improvement over his GenX veal fattening pen and chair to which his bottom had been adhered during the eighteen months of the Y2K project. It had included excessive OT, five vacation days (non contiguous), five sick days (contiguous) and one funeral day for a friend who had taken his car and the laws of physics to court and lost the case. He had told his supervisor that he was not returning until January 4, 2000, not carrying a pager or cell phone, nor would he answer the door. If this were a problem, James assured his supervisor that he would offer his flaccid ergonomic chair-shaped ass to be kissed by whomever in senior management was demented enough to actually want to come in contact with his lily white backside.
Having frightened off his supervisor, there was but one thing left to do. He picked up his desk phone and connected to his voice mail:
4 – Personal options <beep>
3 – Greetings <beep>
2 – ‘At the tone, please record your greeting’
He spoke very quickly: “This is James Castle on December 23. I’m out of the office until January 4, 2000. If you are calling regarding a Y2K problem, I advise you to get a life. It’s too late; your bad planning is not a crisis to me, and it shouldn’t be to you either. I’m certain that one of your reports, which may seem terribly important, really can keep until after New Year’s. And by the way, the millennium isn’t over until next year of the century that brought you Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, lava lamps and ABBA. If you still want to leave a message could you please for once leave your phone number.” <beep>
As he put on his coat, he wondered if that was a little extreme. Nah. He took the elevator down to the main floor and stepped out onto University Avenue. Traffic was light. Snow was falling onto bare pavement, melting on contact, leaving marks that looked like kisses. He walked into the theatre district in search of a pub.
In the same office as James, but three floors up, Charlotte de Laan was struggling. There were piles of documents on her desk along with a laptop and case bulging with files. She did not want to come back to this mess in the New Year. She did not want to take it home. She did not want to stay and work on it. In her office Charlotte had a closet in which she hung her work out gear and guests’ jackets. In the bottom was an Air Canada blanket that she had ripped off a few years ago. Prone to being cold in her office, the blanket had kept her legs warm. She retrieved it from the closet and put it on the corner of the desk. Charlotte then put the laptop and case on the floor. Next she carefully placed the piles of papers around it. Then she unfolded the blanket and with it covered the whole heap. From her desk, she withdrew a safety pin and a Post-It note. She wrote, “Touch this at risk of being tortured,” and pinned it to the blanket. She hadn’t realised how dusty the desk was; she pulled a can of Endust from her drawer, quickly sprayed the surface and wiped it off with a paper towel.
“There. Now I won’t have to come back to a mess on my desk.” Y2K lawsuits can frigging wait until Y2K. She put on her coat, grabbed her purse, left her office – locked it – told her secretary not to come back until January and took the elevator downstairs.
James noticed Charlotte as soon as she came into The Olde Hogs Head. Not five blocks from their office, this new pub was modelled on the English premise that you were there to drink, smoke and maybe eat. If you went alone, you did not want your thoughts drowned out by 80s retro. If you were with a friend, the assumption was that a conversation was desirable.
Because he was alone, James sat at the bar near the bartender. Apart from Charlotte, the place was empty. The wave of Christmas parties had passed and everyone was preparing for New Year’s.
Charlotte went straight to the bar and, while she was taking off her coat, said, “A Manhattan please. On the rocks with enough vermouth so that I can taste it please.”
James was drinking Creemore ale and didn’t know what a Manhattan was. For him she was riveting because of her elegance and the fact she looked really familiar.
The bartender quickly prepared the drink and presented it to her. She tasted it. “OK?” he asked.
“Yes, that will do nicely.”
Then James remembered. “Charlotte de Laan.”
“James Castle.” He extended his hand. She shook it. “I’m in the IT group. I helped work on your contracts system.”
“Ah yes,” she said coolly.
Ooops. Someone else who hates the computer group.
“So,” he said, “what does the legal mind predict for the last year of the 20th century?”
Charlotte raised one eyebrow. “You didn’t use the M word.”
“Yes, it’s overused, incorrectly applied and hard to spell.”
“My prediction is that I will waste a lot of time with frivolous Y2K suits and claims only to learn that the plaintiffs and claimants cannot establish clearly that the problem was ever caused by a date issue. What about you? What new technological horrors await us as we gird ourselves for the 21st century?”
Another person entered the bar. The newcomer was well dressed, tie and suit under a long trench coat. He hung his coat on a hook. His eyes were bloodshot and one had in intermittent twitch. The two co-workers barely registered the newcomer’s entrance.
“In the computer business? More of the same – faster hardware and slower software.”
“I keep reading about Linux …”
“I would really like to think it will compete with Windows but, seeing its based on Unix, which in turn I suspect is based on LSD, I don’t see it being widely accepted. Maybe it and the anti-trust situation will force Microsoft to actually release a version that isn’t as big as a whale and as agile as one on a beach.”
Four barstools away, the newcomer ordered a beer. The bartender served him, but did not let him run a tab.
“But,” continued James, “your interest in computers probably only goes as far as how they annoy you or your clients. What do you want to see happen?”
“I want to see fuel cells and clean air, an end to intolerance, and a total intolerance to undignified treatment of individuals.”
“Never happen,” said the newcomer.
Charlotte looked at him for the first time. He was attractive she supposed, but she wasn’t sure about the eyes.
James wasn’t taking in the newcomer’s appearance because he was concentrating on the next point in his argument. “I don’t know. Fuel cells are really close. That outfit on the West Coast has Ford and Daimler Benz backing it.”
“I don’t want to disagree, but the car companies have a history of buying technology and then burying it.”
“If that is the case here,” said James, “then it’s a pretty public burial.”
“Just think,” the newcomer responded, “who else would pursue non-oil and gas fuels if such a highly respected venture failed? They only have to buy it once, fail it once and never have to worry again. Bartender, another Manhattan for the lady.”
James looked at the newcomer and noted his good hair, polished shoes, and fancy suit. James was dressed like a techie in a formal office: badly pressed dress pants, casual shirt and no tie. He wore a practical ski coat with a shell and liner. Charlotte, on the other hand, was in a crisp business suit with perfectly understated makeup and hair and had arrived in a long mohair coat. I wasn’t planning on even trying to chat her up, but now that Mr. GoodHair is here – had I changed my mind – I would be out of the running just based on attire. And he knows what a Manhattansmells like.
“And another Creemore for me. I guess he can’t smell the difference between lager and ale like he can different cocktails.”
Charlotte had started to slip into a reverie in which she alternatively worried that what she had bought her brother for Christmas was wrong and how to politely get away from this sudden and unpleasant male pissing contest. James’ remark made her change tracks. He noticed; he is in the middle of a mano a mano argument and noticed the guy moving in on me.
“So, Charlotte, our comrade here – I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“I’m James; this is Charlotte. Anyway, Darryl seems to think that greed will overtake all other considerations. That doesn’t leave much hope for developing tolerance. What do you think?”
“I think it’s too convenient to blame greed for everything.”
“That’s because the real driver is power,” said Darryl. “Money and the pursuit of material wealth are mere side effects of seeking to put one’s self ahead of all others.”
James asked: “Isn’t this just the old argument that the current financial system is a modern version of going out and crushing the tribe in the next valley over – killing the men and taking the women – so that your genes will win out over others?”
The bartender placed Charlotte’s Manhattan in front of her. She did not touch it.
James took a sip from his fresh Creemore.
“I think it might have been that at one point,” said Darryl, “but now I feel that people have lost even their hereditary connection to their family. It is the desire to feel complete power over someone.”
“No offence, but you are both wrong,” said Charlotte. “I’ve been in court where power is applied, where a decision that seems trivial to a judge can end one person’s business pursuit and instantly put their house on the auction block. Everyone is driven by fear. And mostly by the fear of the unknown. ‘Am I going to win?’ ‘What happens if I don’t?’ ‘Will my backup plan work?’ In the case of fuel cells, it is the fear of failure that will prevent success, not money.”
“Fear is very powerful, but it tends to motivate people to not act,” said Darryl. “Influence and control over other people requires overt action. Fear leads people to not try something, but only for a while. If they want it badly enough, they’ll do anything.”
Charlotte silently started planning how to gracefully exit the pub.
James was wondering what this guy’s hang-up on power was all about and then was questioning why he cared, given that Charlotte was present.
Darryl pulled a gold cigarette case from his jacket pocket and moved to light up.
Charlotte grimaced slightly and for an instant rolled her eyes up into her head.
James noticed her reaction. “Hey Darryl, we’re the only ones here and it’s not often you get a smoke free pub. Any chance of holding off on that?”
Just when you thought there were no subtle men left in the world …
Darryl snapped the case shut. The lines around his eyes seemed to deepen, like those of an old three-pack-a-day man. And the smile turned into a hard straight line.
“Funny how people act when faced with the end of the world.”
“What?” asked James.
“This cigarette is not going to kill me before this insane planet does. I find it amazing that people really haven’t been observing the signs that it’s all over.”
Oh great. “And to which portents of doom would you be referring?” asked Charlotte. Why did I say that?
“Lawyers … forever the sceptics. Let’s see … where do we start? Earthquakes in Turkey, Greece, Taipei along with wonderfully out of season hurricanes in the Atlantic. The fact that global warming is a common joke on morning radio programs ought to ‘warm’ your heart. And what about our friends in Pakistan and India? Some of the most immature cultures – watch out for that acid in your face ladies – have access to nuclear weapons. The only reason that section of the world hasn’t been obliterated yet is that they probably use the same contractors for the nuclear facilities as they use for their housing. The Russians are the only ones who have figured out that fundamentalist Middle East religions are on the rise, which is why their barely clothed and badly equipped armed forces took on ‘rebels’ in Chechnya. Won’t that be fun, Charlotte, when acid-throwing and arranged marriages become the norm around the world? And of course the Americans … everyone’s favourite unwilling global police force. It’s a pity they are more interested in the current location of their President’s penis than they are in the fact that they have 4-year-olds taking loaded handguns to school. We seem to think here in good old Canada that if we play nice and pass cool laws that, when the shit hits the fan, we’ll be protected by our own smugness.”
Darryl’s voice had increased in volume during his tirade to a point that the bartender took interest.
How did I get into this? All I wanted was one, well maybe two, well-made Manhattans before I went home to wrap some gifts, play some Celtic Christmas music and take a hot foamy lavender bath.
“So what are you going to do about it?” asked James.
“Do about what?”
“The world; you obviously have a vision we mortals here can only begin to comprehend so therefore you must have some constructive ideas on how to save it.”
“Save it? You don’t get it, do you? What makes you think there is anything outside right now to actually save? I think the planet is already dead and we just haven’t figured it out yet. Poor Mother Earth had her ass kicked about twenty minutes after the steam engine patent was issued.”
“So why live? Why come here and bother us?”
I don’t like where this is going.
Darryl stepped away from James and pulled from his jacket three items, which he placed carefully on the bar: a six inch knife, a vial containing a clear liquid and a handgun.
James stood back quickly, unconsciously placing himself between Darryl and Charlotte.
Figures that this lunatic would be between the door and us.
“Hey,” said the bartender, “what the hell is going on?”
“Barkeep!” boomed Darryl, as if he were hosting a party, “Join in! You can help me with a crucial decision. All that is left in this world is to die. If not on the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve … soon, very soon. For me I don’t want to wait. The question is how? Knife? Poison? Firearm? They’re all risky, don’t you think? The gun might slip; the knife may miss and the poison may take too long. And worst of all, one of you might try to ‘save’ me.”
The bartender moved toward the phone.
Darryl picked up the gun. “Don’t try it.”
“Poison,” said James.
“Poison. It seems that the risks are the same; i.e. the chance of being interrupted, or there being a misfire of some sort, is the same. So from my perspective it’s ease of administration that counts. Swilling back some poison, especially if there’s time to chase it with some good scotch, is the easiest way to attempt suicide.”
“Would you pick poison?” Darryl grabbed the vial and waved it in James’ face.
“I don’t think the world is going to end. I’ve been on a Y2K project; it was a retirement savings plan scheme for the computer professionals from the 60s.”
This is a little bit of the wrong time and place for bafflegab, James.
“The world has ended, James, you and your fucking computers even calculated it. But then you decided you could bug-fix it.”
“What is really bothering you?” asked Charlotte. “The world has been ending since at least the Middle Ages and I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses have unofficially ended the world at least twice. So what’s the real problem?”
“You’d like it if I said that my mother used to hit me and my Dad was an alcoholic, wouldn’t you?”
“No one should be abused;” said Charlotte, “that’s what I said at the beginning of this very strange conversation. But if you were having easily understandable problems, it would make it easier for me.”
“I just want to die before the rest of you, but the biological programming against killing yourself won’t let me do it. I’ve tried and tried and I can’t do it.”
“You know,” said James, “this all started with that damn cigarette. If you really want one that badly, go ahead.”
That probably wasn’t a very good …
Darryl put the gun into his coat pocket, grabbed the knife and with cat-like grace moved around behind James and put the blade to his throat.
The bartender, placed both hands on the bar, pushed hard and brought both legs over the counter. It was an unexpectedly lithe movement for a broad shouldered, five foot eight, fifty-year-old man.
“Don’t make me cut him!”
“That’s enough; no way you’re hurting anyone in my place.”
“You can end this, valiant barkeep, by putting your hand in my pocket, taking out the gun and shooting me.”
“You are one sick bastard,” said the bartender.
“OK, Charlotte, you do it,” said Darryl.
“Ah, you see if I did that, it would be murder.”
“But if you don’t it will be the same as you killing James.”
“No, no; it would be the same as if you killed James.”
“Don’t you understand? There is no world out there. It’s gone. Go outside and you won’t just be dead; you won’t even exist!”
“You’re yelling in my ear,” said James.
“So, Jamesy, where’s the fear she predicted? Or do you not care?”
“Don’t mistake sarcasm for lack of fear. I, for one, am shocked that I haven’t crapped my pants, but if what you say is true, why should I be scared? If I go outside and cease to exist or you cut my throat open what difference does it make?”
“You’re a coward,” said Charlotte.
“What?” replied Darryl.
“You can’t bring yourself to commit suicide, and now you are trying to coerce someone into doing it for you. Isn’t the simplest thing to do is to just go outside and die? You might be able to control some people, but the whole world … I don’t think so.”
“Control, or power, starts with yourself, man,” said the bartender.
Darryl threw the knife down and James collapsed on the floor. Charlotte was feeling a little weak in the knees.
Darryl’s face was a contortion of fear. He backed away from them toward where he had hung his coat on the way in. He grabbed the coat. “I won’t see you later,” he said. As if he were deliberately throwing himself into a furnace, he opened the door and left.
The bartender had made it to his phone and was calling the police.
Charlotte was helping a rather pale James from the floor to a barstool.
“Drink your beer. I can’t tell if you are insane or stupid.”
“I was trying to decide myself.”
“The cops are going to be here in a few minutes,” said the bartender. “Can I freshen up your drinks – on the house?”
“Just some water for me; it certainly wasn’t your fault,” said Charlotte.
“Charlotte,” said James, “I want to tell you that some of my bravado was to show off to you. I’m sorry.”
I had figured that out. “You are just too funny.”
“If it’s not too late by the time the cops are through with us, can I please take you out for dinner?”
Alone in the bath or dinner with a friend? “OK; but let’s see how we feel after we give our statements.”
“Hey,” said the bartender, “I know the maître d’ at Le Papillion. I’ll call him and get you in.”
“That would be great,” said James.
“Are you sure you want to go outside, James?” asked Charlotte cheekily. “The restaurant might not exist.”
“Gawd,” said the bartender. “If this is what Christmas is like, I ain’t gonna open on New Years.”