Category Archives: Fiction

The Robin

The Robin
He put the two spoons into the tray in the kitchen drawer, folded the dish towel over the oven’s handle, and turned to the living room.

“Thanks for dinner,” he called to her.  “Your vegetable soup is always excellent.”

She smiled and settled down into the loveseat, leaning her back against one armrest.  The sun brightened her as it moved lower behind branches and changing leaves.  She liked to watch the birdfeeder at the back.  Yesterday morning two faded cardinals perched on the corner post of the wood fence.  One peeping, as the other hopped to the feeder and back with the dark seed.

Now there were no birds.

She rested her hand on her stomach and looked at her ring.  Then she pulled up her knees and wrapped herself in a brown blanket, her lips straight as she looked again through the large window onto the yard.

He knew she wasn’t thinking about what was out there.  He called to her, “Will you go for a walk with me?”

She turned to him, relieved by the interruption.  “Of course I will, honey.”

He said, “I first need to check my work email.”

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In the laundry room each put on shoes and a jacket.  She asked, “Where do you want to walk?”

He chose a route he thought would get work off his mind, so he could think with her about what happened in the morning.  “Let’s leave the subdivision, and go to the farmer’s field.”

She took the flashlight from the shelf.  “We’ll need this for the way back.  It gets dark early now.”

They walked down the driveway into the cool, graying evening.  Before crossing the quiet side-street each felt for the other’s hand.  In a minute they turned onto the half-mile stretch of road that ran north, alongside a line of trees that screened the county bike trail.

He said, “I like this road.  The old trees on both sides, all the way to the end.  And I like that it’s straight, that it rises and dips a little, like a real country road.”

“And I like the rabbits,” she said.  She pointed to a gray-brown, furry lump.  It was still, and facing into the trees by the trail.  “He thinks if he doesn’t move we won’t notice him.”  Then she called sweetly, “We see you!”

She added, “I like the trees too, especially now with the colored leaves.  But the mailboxes.  Why are they on the trail side?  The people have to cross the street to get their mail.”

“I never thought about that.”  And he smiled knowing that what he’d say next wouldn’t satisfy her.  “Maybe the village wanted the boxes on the same side as the telephone poles.”

She liked when he made up answers for things.  But she let him know when he didn’t come up with a good one.  “They’re simply on the wrong side.”

Behind them the whisper of a car’s tires on pavement came closer.  They moved over to the narrow strip of gravel.  The car passed slowly and continued on.

“At least there aren’t many cars,” he said.

They became quiet in their own thoughts.  He looked toward an open garage with tools covering the inside walls.  She, at fall flowers in a garden near the road.

As they continued to walk, he said to himself, “Telephone poles and mailboxes.”  Then out loud, “It’s easy here to imagine it’s the seventies.”  He started to daydream and said, “Simpler times.”

They passed a house that, like the others, sat far enough back from the road that a group of old trees could spread their jagged limbs over the large front yard.  A long, gravel driveway bordered one side of the property and gave some weathered, undriven cars a place to be.  The small house’s front door was on a cement stoop.  Next to it stood a tall aluminum pole.  At the top the American flag drooped motionless, faded.

After the house he saw the mowed grass of the park-district baseball field.  No one was there.  In a far corner, a flat area of sand marked the infield.  The tall, chain-link backstop drew his gaze.  Behind it a line of trees screened a two-lane county route that ran the same direction as the road.  From there a high pitched trill of a squad car came and went.  It woke him up from his slide into home-plate.

“Those times seem simpler to me,” he corrected himself, “because I was a boy then.”

She looked at him and smiled.  “I’d like to have seen you as a boy.”

“A boy,” he repeated in a whisper.  Then he spoke in the serious voice he used when talking about his job.  “They’re cutting costs again.  I won’t get the new position.”  Then with a gentle voice, the one he used to ask her for help.  “Why do I stay at that place?  Twenty-five years under fluorescent lights.  My back to the window, the kind that doesn’t open.  Each day is the same–the building won’t let in the season.”

She wanted to say something, like if she owned a company he’d be CEO.  She knew he did well at his job, and hoped with him for a position where he could do more.  But she also liked that he came home at dinner.  She squeezed his hand and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”  And after a pause, “Maybe that new position would have been too much.”

On other walks they wouldn’t hold hands the whole time, but this time they did not let go.  His hand stayed warm because she was holding it.  And at that moment he thought only of her, that she cared for him, that she encouraged him to appreciate family, that she encouraged him to pursue his creativity.

She went on, “Today Agnes asked me to take her to the club.  Years ago she’d pass the time there since Joe was putting so much into his career.  They never had children.  She said they didn’t want kids.  Now there’s none to look in on them.  They need me to take them to the doctor, to help them around the house.  I cross their street to bring in their mail.”

He thought of their being old one day, sitting together at home.  No doorbell.  No ring of the telephone.  Emptiness.

<><><>

At a half-mile they reached the road’s end, the T at the east-west street.  They crossed to the field.  It was lined with stubs of dried cornstalks.

He looked up slightly, into the distance as far as he could.  Low in the west, pink wisps of clouds glowed in front of deep blue.

“The sky,”  he said, “It’s so big here.  So open.”

She too liked the view there, especially after sunset.  “It’s beautiful.”

He looked into the field.  “Last Saturday I saw them having a bonfire and hayride over there.  Boys and girls laughing and screaming.  Really having a good time.”

She smiled.  “Makes me think of when I was a girl.”

A group of robins fluttered among the top branches near the trail.  She looked at them and forgot the rest of what she was going to say.

He’d never seen her pay attention to robins.  She would look for birds that were harder to find.  “What is it?” he asked.

“I just had a memory,” she answered.  “When I was a girl, I would walk with my older sister to and from school.  One time it was spring and we were going along the path through some trees.  On the ground I found a tiny blue egg.  It was cracked and empty.”

He started to say it’s not unusual, but stopped.

“When I stood up, just a little higher than me I saw the nest.  And poking above it, I saw the head of the mother.  I remember her eye, round and black.  She was staring at me like she knew the egg was gone, like she knew there was nothing she could do.”

He put his arm around her.  She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her shaking.

She sobbed.  “I told the robin that everything would be okay.  I told her she would have others.”

He hugged her and listened to her cry.  And he began too, in his chest and throat and eyes.  He swallowed.  Then he said quietly, “We’ll try again.  Like the doctor said.”  They held each other for a minute as the sky became a deeper blue.

A single screech of a young great horned howl came from the trees.  Then, overhead, the silhouette of the mother’s outstretched wings glided silently into the woods.

He said, “Let’s go back.”  And before crossing the east-west street each felt for the other’s hand.  She felt hers become warm, because he was holding it.

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In the Small Garden of Fruit Trees

Butterfly

Here–there is some peace by the sea, and in the small garden of fruit trees.  Where in late August I sit and watch the butterflies work within the leaves and branches, around the attached apples.  It’s work for the butterflies.  But their fluttering and swirling looks like dancing.  One settles on an apple, then lifts, and flies directly to me.  It lands on my white shirt, its red-tipped, black wings opening and closing.  One day I watched for hours.  They don’t go to the sea, and they don’t go to the village.  In the evening they find someplace here to sleep.  I know this because the next morning I see them again, circling in the new sun, while the visitors still sleep or have just gotten up, to nibble on last night’s bread and cold meats, heat up water for tea, and prepare pastries for breakfast.

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Take My Data, Please!

State Line

“What did you and Abdul discuss on the phone that night.”

“We talked work.”

“You talked work?

“Yes.”

“At one-thirty on a Saturday morning?”

“We both work for Tech Corp, just down the street.”

“Edgar, here, and I both work for the Agency.  We don’t call each other at one-thirty in the morning?”

“Well I clearly remember what Abdul and I talked about.”

“Because that’s when you two hatched your plot!”

“No.  Abdul and I were on a conference call.”

“A midnight conference call?”

“Yes!”

“With your terror network?”

“Uh, no.  With the local area network.”

“Who?”

“The team at Tech Corp that supports the LAN.”

“Can’t Tech Corp get its work done by five P.M on Friday like normal people?”

“Tech Corp needed to update its website.  They won’t let us do that during the day.”

“Who’s ‘us?’  You and Abdul?

“Yes.”

“Tech Corp trusts you two with their website?”

“Yes.  But we’re just part of the team.”

“You say that you and Abdul communicated that night via conference call?”

“Yes.”

“But the call the Agency traced…it was a direct call from Abdul’s phone in Pakistan, to your phone in Winthrop Harbor.”

“Wow!  Abdul’s from Pakistan?”

“You didn’t know that?”

“I knew that Abdul worked offshore, but I had no idea he was in…”

“We traced the direct call from Abdul to you.”

“That’s right.  Abdul called me, and for a few minutes we spoke directly.”

“You’re saying that, even though you were both on the Tech Corp conference call, you and Abdul spoke on a separate, private call?”

“Happens all the time.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because on those calls there are twenty-five or more people.”

“That’s what conference calls are for.  Lots of people.”

“Yeah, but during a website upgrade, there can be many technical conversations going at the same time.”

“So?”

“It gets confusing.”

“And it was confusing that night?”

“Yes!  Abdul and I needed to concentrate…to solve the problem of the website not coming back up.”

“You didn’t want the others to hear you?”

“It didn’t matter if they heard us.  But we didn’t want to add a lot of static to an already busy call.”

“Let’s switch topics.”

“Please do.”

“Your Internet activity that night.”

“What about it?

“Our analyst noted that you were doing Google searches.”

“Of course I was.  Those conference calls go for hours.  Lots of discussion followed by lots of silence.  Do you ever watch CSPAN?”

“I don’t.  Why?”

“Never mind.  I pass the time like anyone else.  It keeps me awake.”

“You Googled ‘Bass Pro Shop Glock .45′”

“I did.”

“Shopping for a handgun?”

“What?  No!”

“Then why did you Google that?”

“I was doing research.”

“Research?”

“Yeah, I’m a writer.”

“A few minutes ago you were a technology guy.  Now you’re a writer?”

“I’m both.  You can be both, you know.”

“I can be both?”

“I meant me, not you.  I don’t think you can even be one of something.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing.  I’m a technology guy and a writer.  I was researching a story.”

“If you’re a writer, who’s published your work?”

“Uh, no one’s published my work.  Not yet.”

“A writer who’s not published?  Does anyone know you’re a writer, other than you?”

“I have a blog.”

“A blog?”

“Yes.  I post my work on an Internet page.”

“Do you get any likes?”

“Yes a few.  Hey.  It’s getting late.  Why are you questioning me?”

“You received a call from a foreign national.  One whose phone has been called by suspected terrorists.  After that you visited the website of a gun seller.  I thought you writers were the timid type.”

“We are.  Or at least I am.  I’m writing a story and there’s a part where a guy shoots at something.”

“So can’t you just write that a guy shoots at something?”

“I could, but don’t you think it’s better if I write, ‘He checked the chamber indicator then pulled back the cold-hammered steel slide.’?”

“Wow!  That does sound better.  So if we go to your blog…I mean we don’t have to go to your blog.  I’m pretty sure we have a copy of it on the Agency’s servers.  But on your blog I can read your story that has the gun in it?”

“No, it’s not there.”

“You’re saying there is no story?”

“But there is!”

“Then why isn’t on your blog?”

“Because I’m going to present it first to a writers’ group.”

“Writers’ group?”

“Actually it’s a guild, the Kenosha Writers’ Guild.”

“A guild?  What…do you guys wear funny clothes?  Puffy sleeves?”

“No!  It’s just a word.

“Wait!  Did you say it’s the Kenosha Writers’ Guild?”

“Yes.”

“But you live in Illinois.”

“That’s correct.”

“And this Wisconsin group lets you in?”

“They do!  I think they like me.”

“The meetings are in Kenosha?”

“Yes.”

“And your residence is in Winthrop Harbor.”

“It is.”

“So you cross the border?”

“The border?”

“The line between Illinois and Wisconsin.”

“Of course I do.  Why do you even mention that?”

“We’re trying to discourage it.”

“Discourage what?”

“Crossing the border.”

“You mean the state line?”

“Yes, the state line border.”

“Why?  Is some war brewing between The Land of Lincoln and America’s Dairy Land?”

“Does your writers’ group laugh at your jokes?  People who cross borders are more likely to be up to something.”

“Even state borders?”

“Yes.  We prefer people to stay in their place.  We’re going to watch you as you move between the two states.”

“How will you do that?”

“Last week we got a court order, and now we’ve got a drone buzzin’ around, above Russell Road at 39th.”

“In that case you won’t like my story.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because my character shoots down that drone.”

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A Piece of the Lake

3

The blue water reached from the windows of the college hall way out to the horizon.  No sailboats as far out as you could see.  Just the blue surface of the water and the lighter blue sky and white clouds.  The evening waves lapped quietly onto the rocks below.

A few miles away the city festival filled the streets with rock music, people, and the smell of brats and hot pretzels.  Everyone smiled, forgetting their problems from the day.  The lake helped with that.  It was there when they rushed from their breakfast, and later when they attended to business, and now when they could visit.  It was there, always.

A young mother bent over a stroller to comfort her baby who cried at the slanting sunshine.  Her boy sneaked toward the water.  He wanted to get something for his sister–a piece of the lake, so she could see how blue it was.

He scooped his bright orange bucket into the shallow waves of swirling brown sand, and was puzzled again that here the lake turned clear.  He lifted it anyway, watching the water slosh from side to side almost spilling over the edges.  In a few steps he looked into her stroller.  “See!  I brought you a piece of the lake!

His sister blinked her blue eyes and looked directly into his, her tiny fingers opening and closing.  The boy dipped his hand into the cool, clear water, then touched his wet fingers to his sister’s.  She smiled and gurgled and lifted her little fist to her mouth.

The boy smiled.  “See!  I brought you a piece of the lake!  This piece isn’t blue, but when you get bigger you’ll see that the whole lake is.  And we’ll play in it together.”

And his sister stretched her arms out to him, and again she smiled and gurgled.

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The Hustle

Hustle

I wouldn’t have noticed you.

Not if you’d stayed in the crowd walking east on Madison, hurrying to the Loop.  But you crossed south onto Canal, and into the morning shadows.  You didn’t notice me, the woman standing in the alley.  You were looking up.  To the top of Willis Tower.  That’s when I stepped from where I watch, to follow.

That other guy, wearing a suit and carrying a leather portfolio, I won’t try him.  A lawyer or banker won’t listen.  You, though.  Casual pants, a bright checkered shirt, lunch in a green cooler bag.  You will.  And just now, you turned your head to that woman passing by.  She’s a little younger than me, but I’ll still catch your eye.

The men and women walking in front, I see the backs of their heads.  But the top of yours is what I see as you tilt it again, to look up at the buildings.  Your hair is gray and thinning, yet the city’s beauty still fascinates you.

Like the guy I was married to.  In the city he saw only the good.  In me too.  When I would stray he always took me back.  He never said it but he liked not knowing where I’d gone.  I really wanted to make his world as good as he thought.  He left to see if anyone could.

So I’m here.  And I’m coming up next to you because this way works better.  Because if I was walking towards you, you’d study my eyes, my sweatshirt, my jeans.  You might see that I wore them last night, then look past me before I can say…

“Excuse me.”  I say it beside you, nicely, like when your wife’s here and asks someone how to get to State Street.

You look over to me with bright eyes, willing to help.

And so I go on, “I need to get to Bolingbrook.”

Still walking, you look forward.

I see you’re not sure about me.  I keep up and urge you, “Bolingbrook is far away.  I need to take the train.  I have to get home.”

You look over at me again, your mouth closed, lips straight.

You don’t like strangers asking for money.  But I can convince you I’m not a panhandler.  “I came down here yesterday for an interview…at Target.”  That makes me different, doesn’t it?  That I say I’m looking for a job, at a place you’re familiar with?

You stare forward, still walking.

I’ve got one more line that sometimes works.  It’s just for guys.  “My ex-boyfriend left me down here.”

You slow your pace and turn your head to me.

My eyes show I’m hurting and desperate.  I need a fix.

At Monroe the light turns red.  I stop with you.

You look to me and say, “I can’t help you.”  Flat and simple as my husband said when he left.

And as you walk east across Canal, I watch the back of your head.  You walk, and as far as I can see, you never again look up at the buildings.

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Mark’s Dream

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Friday night, ten o’clock.  Mark sat at home at his desk, at a laptop keyboard.  He loved the weekend because the week had exhausted him, and for now he could slow the stream of work worries into his head.  He looked past his laptop, at the RadioShack transistor radio he kept.  Thought back to high school, physics class, electronics.  A capacitor stores and releases a charge.  The experiment during lab, a capacitor misconnected straight to the power supply.  In less than a minute the tiny, powder blue can exploded with a loud crack, yellow smoke, and acrid fume.

Mark looked at the laptop screen, the e-mails to get through: requests from clients, design problems from analysts, defects logged by testers, expense questions from finance.  His organizing skill got him this job.  But so much came so fast that he misfiled things.  The thoughts had nowhere to go.

He turned on the radio.  Could have streamed the station through his laptop, gotten better sound quality with the external speakers.  But he liked the radio.  It was simpler.

The weekend jazz show.  Saxophone and piano and a woman’s smooth voice.  Years ago.  In moments it took Mark from his two-story, beige, vinyl-sided house, between suburbs and farmland, to Chicago’s Loop.  He had paid the fifteen dollars and now sat to the side, alone at a small round table, a flame flickering in a dark red glass with a bubbly texture, a green bottle of Heineken in his hand.  No calendars or clocks.  Safe in the darkness, with the live music and live strangers, the occasional passing siren and flashing blue lights.  He watched the young woman sing, the thin dress close to her slim body.  And once in a while she’d look right at him.  Her brown eyes reaching into him.  He enjoyed just watching and listening, and imagining, to the notes of the piano keys, the brushes on the head of the snare, the meandering low-tone of the stand-up bass.

The piece ended and Mark ordered another.  As the next number began he welcomed it, breathed it in, absorbed it.  Until the beer and piercing sax bore into the place of his floating thoughts.  That’s when Mark came back.  Back to his house.  His head on his desk and keyboard.

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Woodman’s Other Job (A Continuation of Why Woodman Lives in the Woods)

prodLockLidDocument

It had been a week since Mark last encountered Woodman.  Mark didn’t believe that he lived on the corporate grounds, not full time.  He thought back to the worn tent and the reused campfire pit.  Woodman was spending some time there, more time than anyone else.  But Mark wasn’t that interested in Woodman’s lodgings.  What Mark wanted to know was whether Woodman really did have inside information regarding his project.

On Wednesday as the sun was setting, and car after car was coasting to the campus exit, Mark walked out of the building and onto the trail.  If Woodman really was living out there, Mark would find him.  And he did, at the same half-mile point on the circuit.  Woodman wore blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, and he was sitting on a lawn chair, head down slowly flipping through a thick packet of white, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch sheets of paper.  Mark could see black text printed on the pages.

“Hey there Woodman!”

Woodman jumped.  He flipped the packed into his tent and stood up.  “How’s it goin’ Mark?  You’re out here late.”

“Well I thought I’d come out and check on you.”  Mark joked lightly, “see if you needed anything.”

“No, no.  I’m fine.”  Woodman reached up to his cap, removed it, scratched his thinning hair, and replaced the cap.

Mark went right to his question.  “Woodman, how do you know what’s going on with Project-X?”

“Mark, when you’re on the company grounds as much as I am, you start noticing things.

“Like what?”

“See this small group of trees that my tent is inside of?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what kind of trees they are?”

Mark looked smug.  “Well the white bark kind of gives it away.  They’re birch trees.”

“Correct.  But there are many species of birch tree.  Do you know what specie they are?”

“Woodman, who cares?  I want to know how you know about my project.”

Woodman placed his hand on the white trunk, and looked up at the leaves.  “These are silver birches.  They aren’t native to America.”

“So?”

“Like I said, when you’re on the company grounds as much as I am, you start noticing things, understanding things.”

“But Woodman you’re outside.”  Mark moved his head and looked at the trees surrounding them.

Woodman removed his eyeglasses, pulled a cloth from his pocket, and cleaned a lens.  He then held the glasses out above his eyes, peered to make sure the smudge was gone, and put them back on.  “You know Mark, I’ve learned more about this place being outside than I’d ever learned inside.

“How’s that?”

“Stuff from inside gets outside.”

Mark doubted it.  “What stuff do you mean?”

“Well to start with, let me ask you.  Before you leave work each day, do you put your discarded paperwork into the large locked bins?  Like the ones at home that you roll to your curb, but the office ones are padlocked and have just a narrow slot for inserting paper.”

“I know the bins, Woodman.”  Mark didn’t like where he was leading.  “You’re taking discarded paperwork?”

Woodman shook his head.  “No, I don’t get anything from the locked bins.  The shredding service has the only key and each bin is unlocked only for a moment when it’s being emptied into the shredding truck.”

Mark couldn’t figure out what Woodman was getting at.  He didn’t think that Woodman was a threat to him or his coworkers but he felt like he should respond.  “Good to hear our paperwork is safe from you.”

“But it’s not.”

“Woodman, you just said you can’t get into the bins.”

“Right.  Mark, do you know that on Milwaukee Avenue about ten miles toward the city, there’s a bar…”

“Woodman, what does that have to do with discarded paperwork?  And there’s tons of bars on Milwaukee avenue.  Look, I gotta go.”

Woodman called after Mark.  “Sometimes at night I can’t sleep.  I get bored of lying in my tent.  So around midnight I take a drive.  I go down Milwaukee and stop in at that bar.

Mark called back.  “Later Woodman!”

Woodman called again.  “Midnight’s about when the cleaning crew is done.”

Mark stopped and turned.  “What?”  And walked back toward Woodman.

“Those cleaning guys, and even some of the women, they go to that bar.”

Mark had tired of Woodman’s nonsense, but it now seemed that Woodman was nearing his point.  “And?”

“I hang out with ‘em.”  Woodman said as if anyone would do the same.  “Only for one drink though.  One drink for me that is.”

“You hang out with the people who clean the office?”

“I buy ‘em a round or two.  Vodka.  They like vodka.”

“And that gets you what?  Guys patting you on the back, raising their shot glasses, sharing their stories from the motherland?”

“Mark.  The company rule is for everyone to put their discarded paperwork into the locked bins before they leave each day.”

“Again with the locked bins?  Woodman, I’m getting bored with your conspiracy theories.  If you want me to listen, I’d rather you tell me what happens at the bar.”

Woodman continued to control the conversation.  “Mark, do you put your discarded paperwork into the locked bins before you leave each day?”

“You’re obsessed!  No!”

“How often do you empty your bin?”

“Oh I don’t know.  When it gets full.  Maybe once every few months.”

Woodman repeated Mark.  “Once every few months.  You’re like everybody else.”

“So?”

Woodman stepped toward a low, large stump, the top of which had been evenly cut.  He sat.  “Mark, the cleaning service is taking documents out of the small bins at each desk, before employees dispose them in the large bins.  They don’t take much at one time.  No one is noticing.”

Mark responded with monotone sarcasm.  “Fascinating.  The cleaning people skim our trash.  Can they even read it?”

“Hold on there Mark.  That’s a cliché.  Just because they’re cleaning people doesn’t mean…”

Mark stopped him and clarified.  “Woodman, I’m not trying to insult them.  I’m trying to insult the people I work with.  Hell, I don’t understand half our communications, especially our systems analysts’ white papers.  Anyway, what benefit does the cleaning crew get from stealing our paperwork?”

Woodman answered with a smile, “It gets them free nightcaps, and it gets me free reading material.”

“Come on Woodman!  You want me to believe that you’ve learned about Project-X from the recycling?  Only pieces of information can be pulled from the bins.  You’re not getting the full correspondence which is via e-mail, and the project documentation which is on the network.”

Woodman’s playful smile turned mischievous.  “Did you forget that I can find e-mails?”

“I remember.  You could…”  Mark emphasized the past tense, “back when you were an employee.”  He could no longer hold his frustration.  “Shoot Woodman.  Now you’re just a squatter and a garbage collector.  You make yourself out like you’re in the know.  But you gotta be on the inside to be on the inside.”

Woodman looked at Mark with the warm smile of a parent teaching his child.

“Mark, do you ever work from home?”

“Yeah, on Fridays.”

“And when you’re there, can you get your work done just as if you were at the office?”

“I can.”

“And what do you have at your house?”

“Now wait a second Woodman.”  Mark had tolerated Woodman’s questions about the office, but he was bothered by this attempt to expand their conversation.

“Mark, all I’m asking is what technology do you have at home that lets you do what you need to do?”

Woodman knew, but Mark answered anyway.  Like a child responding to a teacher.

“An Internet connection, my work laptop, and a cell phone.”

Woodman nodded toward the slanting gray canvas within the trees and he lowered his voice.  “The same stuff I have in there.”

“Didn’t they take away your laptop and deactivate your login when they let you go?”

“They did.”

“But you can still get into the network?”

“Yep.  Justice set me up with a new laptop and a network ID.”

“What?”

“Yeah!  I’m a contractor now.  But no one is to know.”

“Not to know?  Come on Woodman.  Your name will be in the e-mail address book.  People will be able to see you on instant messenger.”

Woodman laughed.  “Justice set me up as an offshore contractor.”

“What?”

“I’m Betula Pendula.”

“Betula Pendula?”

“Yeah.”  Woodman’s face lit up with pride in his alternate identity.  “Google it sometime.  That’s why I’ll work for Justice, he puts thought into things.”

“This is your other job?  You’re working for Justice?”

“I am.”

“Woodman, why are you even telling me this?”

“Because I need your help.”

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