Read The Four Fingers of Death Online

Authors: Rick Moody

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Four Fingers of Death (8 page)

BOOK: The Four Fingers of Death
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“I’ll tell you what,” D. said. “I am going to read up, and I’m going to play a few more times, and then I’m going to challenge you again.”
“I’d like that, Mr. Tyrannosaurus,” I replied. “Actually, I haven’t played in a while. But what I could use right now, Mr. Dinosaur, are a few distractions. So, I accept.”
D.’s automobile seemed to have no shortage of pieces of chassis that were falling off. The drive was conducted in quiet, but not an awkward quiet, in a serene quiet in which the two of us could float without concern. I did wonder why
me
, why would this interesting and accomplished socially inept gentleman, in a town not noted for its population of persons of African ancestry, be interested in a baseball card dealer with a sick wife? In lieu of an answer, I accepted the following: that I had apparently made a friend.
It wasn’t five minutes after I closed the gate, shuttered the windows, and locked the several locks that my portable digital assistant tolled, using the ring tone from one of the big band songs from the 1950s that I favored. Making use of the caller-identification feature, I checked the number, and it was revealed to be none other than the URB Medical Center. There was a catch in my breath, in my already highly irregular breathing.
My wife had waked!
In the tolling of the bells, I counted the days since I had seen her conscious, I counted the ways that I had been redeemed, without meriting it at all, by my marriage. And then there was the wheezing of some kind of oxygen-supplying apparatus, after which I heard Tara’s groggy voice.
“Monty?”
“Tara!”
“Monty!”
“How are you feeling?”
“It looks like I was sawed in half. Have you seen this? Were you using me for some kind of magic trick? Did you make me play the role of the girl who gets sawed in half?”
“You were away for so long. So I had to, I had to maximize whatever income streams were available to me. Including sawing you in half.”
She didn’t laugh. My wife. She failed to laugh. “How long is long?” she slurred, drifting away.
“Didn’t they—”
“I want to hear
you
say it.”
“I’m coming over.”
“It’s late,” she said. And here her voice fell into a whisper. “I’m just going to fall asleep. No visitors till morning.”
“But I want to come now.”
“You can’t.”
“I’m going to hitchhike.”
“A nurse is yelling that you can’t come. Can you hear her? Come tomorrow.”
“What if something happens?”
“Nothing’s going to happen. Don’t make me talk more. I can barely—”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want to argue.”
“I know.”
“They’re going to take me off the respirator tomorrow for an hour. I’m still coughing up blood. You wouldn’t believe all the blood sometimes.”
“Then will you be able to come home?”
“I’m so bored.”
I did go the next day, to find her stitched shut, heavily drugged, slightly puffy from immunosuppressants, and pasty like she had just been to the paling station, but much herself, and I held her in my arms, and I returned to the pattern of hospital visitation and sleeping in folding chairs, until that most perfect day, the day when Tara returned from the hospital, when I ferried her back in a gypsy cab running on cooking oil, her lungs filled with the breath of young George the motorcycle hobbyist. And here was her amazing entrance, yes, the moment when we climbed out of the car, on a day when the temperature was flirting with ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. My wife, Tara, walked by herself from the driveway to the front door of the house. She’d managed to get back into her old white tights and her suede miniskirt, the outfit she’d worn to the hospital, and she had on a ridiculous hat and sunglasses, and when she struggled to the front step, where the dead cacti that I’d failed to water for the past month had flopped over skeletally, she said, “This is where you carry me across the threshold.”
She certainly didn’t weigh much.
I know it’s a theme of horror movies, the sort of horror movies that I used to love, that transplanted body parts inevitably bring with them some faint trace of their sinister donor. This would perhaps suggest that, upon returning home, Tara would begin headbanging, and would be demanding songs in which the E strings of Finnish guitars were tuned down two whole steps and the lyrics were all about women who’d done Satan wrong or women who
kill, kill, kill
, but I noticed no such thing. In fact, in the two or three weeks after she got back from the hospital, we had the best stretch we’d ever had together in our marriage. Tara started thinking about going back to work. Though with unemployment rather high in our region, it wasn’t as if she could just get out there and command a position. But she started
reading up
. She wanted to go back into social work, where she had worked in her twenties. Her specialty: runaways.
Tara also became interested, again, in the Futures Betting Syndicate. The FBS had become a joint venture of the Sino-Indian Economic Compact not long before. Which is to say that when these Asian engines of international progress put aside the lobbing of nuclear warheads at each other over the Himalayas, they created a global economic powerhouse, and acquiring the FBS was among their first joint operations. The FBS had therefore begun conducting the majority of its Asian-themed futures markets in Farsi, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Some of the subjects of these markets were predictable—the likelihood of the annual crackdown on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and so forth—while others were less benign. The web presence of the Sino-Indian FBS was seductive and glamorous, with animations that, on a wall-sized monitor, could lure in even the most hardened former compulsive gambler. Imagine the effect, then, on a young person convalescing from a deadly pulmonary illness, a young person with a kinky just-had-sex hairstyle and an ICU pallor, who was able to do machine transliterations of Cantonese and Farsi. This young person, though increasingly physically weak, could easily have had the resources to realize that the FBS now had a futures market in “Violent Insurrection in the United States of America.”
Such simple words! Who would care! At this late stage, when all the hooting and hollering was over, who would care really if there was violent insurrection in the United States of America! Violent insurrection in the People’s Republic of China would be the kind of thing that would bring out the tremors in brokers in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. And yet “Violent Insurrection in the United States of America” was the subject that piqued the interest of my wife, Tara Schott Crandall. She was too sickly to make love to me; indeed, we hadn’t had each other’s clothes off in so long that it was almost as if I didn’t know how to unbutton my own trousers. Did it mean that I didn’t love her? It did
not
. I loved her enough to overlook her renewed hours spent in front of the screen, even when, one night, I walked into her office, pulled up the shades, kissed her upon the brow, which was only a little slick with perspiration, looked over her shoulder, and saw that she was spending three thousand dollars (a not insignificant portion of our savings) betting on the futures market in the aforementioned “violent insurrection.”
“Let’s just hope it starts on the East Coast,” I said. And then: “Are you not worried that the betting will produce the result?”
I was used to a certain amount of relapsing and remitting, but this was asking too much of me, and of our homeland security infrastructure.
“Shhh,” she said. She was using the chat function of the FBS software to communicate with other dangerously obsessed bettors. One interlocutor was a person whose name, when translated from the relevant ideograms, seemed to be PiranhaYummy. Tara was attempting to convince this Amazonian stream dweller that the conditions were indeed
absolutely right
for the political action described on the big board. I told Tara that there had been a recent discovery of a subspecies of piranha in the Potomac. A small school of them could clean an overweight congressional representative down to the bones.
“There doesn’t have to be an actual violent insurrection,” she reminded me. “There has to be the
perception
of violent insurrection. Look at all the other stuff they have.” It was a villanelle of the violent, a sestina of the salacious on that screen. I could very well have written one of my short stories from titles of the betting pools on the FBS if, in the days of ministering to my wife, I was still capable: “Dismemberment of American diplomat in Islamist country,” “Spain exiles its Jews,” and so on.
“It only takes one piranha to buy,” Tara said. “Then watch the prices rise. I think I can get out before I lose my blouse.”
I mumbled something noncontroversial and backed away from her workstation, but not before I could see some of the inexplicable chatter from PiranhaYummy and his ilk. “My bicycle has never been so rusty,” he typed to my wife. “A germ has begun its replications.” Before the automated translation, he was probably saying “Let’s have lunch; my wife doesn’t understand me the way you do.”
It was in these next days that Tara informed me, over a hastily and badly prepared dinner, that large sums had been made and lost. Tears in her eyes. Ever deeper did my wife burrow into the subculture of Asian day traders in the futures markets. She claimed, among the dupes and shills she found there, to have connections in the anarchist underground in the USA; she claimed to know well the survivalist skinheads of the Rust Belt. It was a lot of bluster, but when deployed correctly, this bluster gave the appearance of knowledge, and this was enough to buffet the price of bids on the FBS.
“Violent Insurrection in the United States of America,” along with “International Bioterror Strike,” began a slow but undeniable upward movement. Tara seemed to feel that if the price rose, it was she who was ascending, back into the world. Her spirits soared, and her fair, exhausted face took on a rosy hue I had not seen in a long time. Was it the magic arts of the surgeons at the medical center, with their nanotechnological robots? Or was it the likelihood of violent insurrection?
It was when this steady climb on the FBS became somewhat meteoric that the scam no longer seemed funny or pragmatic. We were citizens of a post-industrial country that no longer produced much. Our rate of emigration exceeded our rate of immigration. Our GDP was contracting for what? The twelfth quarter? Tourism was down. Manufacturing was all but nonexistent. An analogy? The mayor of my burg, the city of Rio Blanco in which I write these lines, even this political gladiator had absconded across the all-but-dried riverbeds that separated this sovereignty from our NAFTA signatory to the south. This once robust superpower may have been on its last legs, but we still loved it, the way you love a dog in the backyard, whose attempts to close its jaws around your leg are stymied only by the rope tethered to the dead paloverde.
One night Tara broke the news to me. Out of the blue, she’d made seven thousand dollars, all on “Violent Insurrection in the United States of America.” She was worried. She had a
jones
, and the
jones
was for grim prognostication. Tara had locked herself in the bedroom and shut the shades, and now she felt as though she had unleashed armed dissident elements, and they were fanning out around us.
The one thing she never mentioned, in all this, was her illness.
In the meantime, D. Tyrannosaurus and I continued our dance. I can’t tell you how many times I beat him, and in how many circumstances. The man just could not play. If he managed to stumble on a strategy, he then could be relied upon to overlook what came next, forever forgetting what my bishops were doing or all the possibilities of my queen. I beat him at night, I beat him in the morning, I beat him over lunch, I beat him downtown by the bus terminal. I beat him over the phone. I beat him by e-mail and teleconference.
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