“What we’re talking about here?” said Duke.
“I’m listening,” Doris said.
“What it means to be a man.”
“I hope this isn’t sexist malarky.”
“This is dawn-of-time understanding. Like all the big ideas. Simple. You forget how simple.”
“If it’s so simple then why is our life a complicated mess? Reporters driving us out of our home. Hiding out in the underworld. You can’t tell me whether we’re dead or alive. My man a lying, betraying…”
“A what?” said Brimsnod.
“Will you please shut up?” Duke asked.
“I do what I want,” she replied. “You know that.”
“Back to the basics,” said Duke. He turned his back to Brimsnod. “I explained this before. We’re past swinging through the trees, clobbering wooly mammoths. Modern man. Jesus, it’s pathetic. Instead of a bloody club, what does a guy like Fatman have?”
“What he had was a loving home,” said Doris. “An understanding mate. Quiet. Contentment.”
“Yeah, that’s great,” said Duke. “As far as it goes.”
“It went a long way,” I said, more to Doris than to Duke.
“Let me handle this, okay? Could you all give me some room? I’m saying love, contentment, great, fine. So the glass is half full. But the glass is half full.”
“I thought what we had was enough,” Doris said.
Her look teetered between outrage and hurt. Her eyes watered up, but not enough for a tear to fall. I choked back a sob. Duke pulled a dusty handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it at me.
“Sorry to break this to you, but it’s not. Not enough,” Duke said. “Nothing is enough, not anymore. Fatman can’t drag the meat back to the cave. So what’s the marker? What makes him a man?”
“There was a lot.”
“I’d like to hear,” said Brimsnod. Again, that leer from her.
I feared Doris would lunge for her, hoped that she wouldn’t. The dead are stronger than you think. You see the aftermath of a twist-off and you know. Head here, body there. A mess.
“Okay,” said Duke. He set a hand on each of them.
“Money. Money is the marker. Tragically. Ridiculously. A stack of gold and jewels in a treasure room, that was lame back when. It’s not even that anymore. Pixels floating around in the nothingness. Numbers flickering on a screen. Occasionally converted to a marginally real object. A car. Your luxury automobile. Which is to say, a glob of steel and plastic that we accept as vastly more valuable than a slightly different glob of steel and plastic. A house with more useless rooms than a house with slightly fewer useless rooms. Do I need to go on?”
“Can we stop you?” Doris asked.
“He misses the courtroom,” Brimsnod said sotto voce.
“Our tools are imperfect but they’re what we got to work with,” said Duke. “Money. The accumulation thereof. Buying a place in the world. A seat at the table with the other big knockers. Donations to this, acquisitions of that. Which and what, doesn’t matter. it’s not a chunk of warm bloody liver hacked out of a fresh-killed beast. Not even close. But it’s what we got at hand.”
“Is this how you feel, Charles?” Doris asked. Given her expression, she could have asked, Is this dog shit on my shoe?
“Yes,” I said. “No. It’s complicated.”
“It is and it isn’t,” Duke continued. “You want to tell me you haven’t noticed more swagger in the Fatman’s step of late? The pride in his stride? More junk in the bunk? That’s what a million five in bitcoins will do for a man. And that’s, what, three weeks of business? A month? After the reporters get done, you think we’re going to be able to keep up? It’s going to be a spray of dough. A volcano.”
“I gave it away once. Charles can do the same. It’s here. It’s gone. It’s not like cancer. You can get rid of it.”
“If you want to,” said Brimsnod. “If you’re not distracted.”
“Distracted? By what?” Doris asked.
“Or who,” said Brimsnod.
“You’re dying to tell me something.”
“I’m dead. But yeah.”
Duke made a grab for Brimsnod’s mouth. She bit his finger. It came off in her teeth. She spit it into the dust while he yelped and cursed.
“Let me fill you in,” Brimsnod said.
She looked pleased to be perched on this ledge.
Tomorrow: Gray blubbery mass of my heart