A Novel

Chapter 35: What Makes You Sleep

While Ora injected Ellen West with more Pentothal, Durney opened the trailer door. Another man entered. The new man and Ora carried Ellen West back to Ora's car, and drove away, leaving Durney behind with the night auditor.

Durney paced back and forth. The girl—Ellen West, the Blonde Bombshell, she was supposed to explain how and why Todd had entrapped Camden. Instead, she described a murder and a whole hidden world that had been existing, silently, side-by-side with his own. It felt like a dangerous world, hungry to grow. Did the murder she had described matter? Did the existence of an aggressive syndicate working out of Peoria matter? Were the murder and the syndicate connected? Why did the man named Delaney keep reappearing?

Durney looked at the night auditor, and said, "None of it makes any sense. It doesn't add up." He sat in the chair recently occupied by Ellen, and put his hands over his face. "Nothing has been making sense for a while now. It's outsiders, but how many and how are they connected and what do they want? It almost makes me regret what we did to Todd."

The night auditor removed his De Kalb seed corn cap and gently rolled its bill between his hands. He set the cap on his desk and pushed back his hair with his ink stained hand. He put the De Kalb seed corn cap back on his head. He spun his swivel chair to face the credenza behind his desk. From the credenza he removed a bottle of vodka, two shot glasses, and a padded envelope. He spun back around. He filled the shot glasses, and pushed one across the desk, towards Durney.

Durney walked to the night auditor's desk and took the vodka.

The night auditor said, "To the best plans." He and Durney drank their shots.

The night auditor then placed his hand on the padded envelope. From inside the envelope, he pulled a small black book. It looked like a diary or a journal. The night auditor opened the journal to a page that was marked with a green ribbon. He handed the journal to Durney, and said, "Thursday, August twentieth, nineteen eighty-seven. Not that long ago, is it? Read it aloud."

Durney hesitanted—why? He took the journal, and stared at the open page. "I don't understand. What is this?"

The night auditor repeated himself, in a patient tone somehow both reassuring and slightly taunting, "Read it aloud."

Durney: "I sometimes do have to remind myself that I am only one person. I'm known by many names, at least one to each person, but not one each to every. To run an investment firm like Dearborn Capital, you need a network of agents, and a network requires a root or a center; I am the center, and the network spins around me like a giant constellation spinning around the center of the universe. Within the network, some nodes must be able to communicate about the center, and to do so they must be able to know the center by the same name; they must be able to name the center to each other.

"Other nodes within the network, however, must never be permitted to communicate about the center. For the network to operate at maximum efficiency, the center must be able to coordinate precisely which nodes can communicate about the center, and which nodes cannot. The only effective technique yet invented for achieving such coordination is by controlling the name by which the center is known to the nodes. Information flows into the center: requests for information, commands, and countermands flow out from the center; and wealth moves through the markets, controlled invisibly by this constant inflow and outflow, like how the moon controls the tides. And controlling all that, ultimately, is nothing more than the names by which the center is known to the nodes of its network. Through this technique, furthermore, a simple shift in the name of the center can alter the relationships of the nodes within the network, even down to the farthest end of the network: a shift in the name of the center can, in fact, move a node's position from the periphery of the network to a position very near the center itself. Such a shift would cancel the name by which the center was previously known to the affected nodes. The center can circumvent this problem, however, by actually entering his own network, becoming a ficticious node within it, under the new name by which he would like specific nodes to know him. Thus the relationship between nodes is changed without the nodes themselves realizing how they have changed their positions within the network—whether, for example, they have moved closer or farther from the network's center. In this way, the network functions without the nodes ever actually knowing their place within the network, and without ever actually knowing the center, by which I mean the single referrent of the many names for the center, me: I sometimes have to remind myself, I am only one person.

"Each node, therefore, is either an agent, or the center himself, me, acting as a node.

"The exact relationship between the stability of the network and the efficiency of the network is unknown: an increase in the number of names for the center seems to increase the stability of the network, enabling the network to absorb and localize damage, but also seems to decrease the efficiency of the network. How many different names for the center can the network support, and how many shifts in the name can the network tolerate, before both stability and efficiency are compromised?

"In theory—provided the relationships between the nodes within the network, controlled always by governing the name by which each node knows the center, remain stable—the referent itself, the actual center, could be changed, and the network continue to operate, for some time at least, without disruption, as long as the names for the center remain stable.

"The network becomes volatile when the center makes too many changes, too quickly, to the relationships between the nodes in the network. And remember that those relationships are changed only by changing the name by which the nodes know the center, or by the center entering the network as a node under a new name.

"So you can see how important it is that the nodes never actually know the referent himself, only the referent's name, which requires maximum depersonalization of the relationships between the center and the nodes in his network. Such depersonalization is not possible for humans, but can be approximated by controlling the names by which the center is known to its nodes. By now, more people know me by a false name than know me by my real name. Nobody knows me.

"Two nights ago, I killed somebody. By now, I can see that it was the beginning to the conclusion of a long story, really, and like most long stories, the beginning to the conclusion began with a trap. The trap I fell into was of my own making. Not of my own making, but me, my own degenerate self.

"A few years ago, Samuel West came to see me, and he brought his daughter, Ellen. His daughter told me about these boat cruises where you could pick up guys.

"Two nights ago, I went on one of those cruises. I had to be in Elmville, Illinois on business, and the cruises were run out of a marina near Elmville, so I called the number Ellen West had given me, and reserved a spot. I was told that a water taxi could pick me up for the cruise in Peoria or Lacon. I said that I would be coming from the north, and had been told the cruises were run out of a marina near Elmville. The person on the phone sounded annoyed, and said that if I wanted, I could board the cruise at the marina, and he gave me directions. When I arrived at the marina, I was seated in a waiting room on the lower level of the marina. Ellen West was there and she brought me drinks from the bar upstairs. She pretended not to know me, and I her. After about forty-five minutes the captain came for me, and took me out to the docks. I could see several men boarding a boat, and the captain brought me to this group of men.

"Once on the boat, all the men, including me, waited at the bar to get a drink, after which we seated ourselves around the lounge, or 'salon' as everybody seemed to call it. The passengers, all middle-aged men like me, were very awkward acting. A few made strained attempts at conversation, but these conversations ended when another group boarded the boat and entered the salon—this time it was a group of young men, good-looking young men, obviously the renters. Ellen was right about how handsome they would be.

"Everything happened very quickly after that. The young men scattered themselves around the salon, approaching the older men, making conversation, letting the older men buy them drinks. I loathed the idea of having to jockey for attention, especially when I saw the way the other older men were pawing the younger men, practically licking their chops all hungry-like. I despise this queenly kind of behavior.

"Luckily, a very handsome blonde approached me. He introduced himself, said his name was Arlie. I bought him a drink; we chatted for a bit.

"From talking to Arlie, and observing the others, it did not take me long to understand how it all worked, and shortly the pairing-off began, the others were going below deck with their boys. Arlie asked if I would like to go to a cabin with him. He said it would be two hundred dollars. I counted out five hundred dollars—I guess it made me feel superior to the other men, to pay more than double what he had asked.

"We went down to one of the cabins. We had a good time, partying. I had some cocaine with me and he did a line and I did a few. He had poppers and we did those too. We were partying pretty hard, and eventually I was fucking him. There wasn't a lot of courtship or seduction—I don't go in for that kind of fairy shit; I like it pretty rough and I don't get into kissing and cuddling. While I was fucking him, he asked me to strangle him. I was flying high and the idea turned me on. I was in for anything: the rougher the better. My head felt like a giant helium balloon and I needed something to burst it. I put my hands around his throat, and I can still feel the grin that spread across my face as I began to squeeze. It felt good, and he liked it. It felt good to me and it felt good to him. He kept saying, harder, please harder. I did. I didn't want him saying please for any god-damned anything unless I told him to, and I hadn't told him to. So maybe I squeezed even harder to preempt any more pleases.

"I don't know. That's just maybe. All I know for sure is that I was getting pretty close, and at that point I just had the one thing in mind, getting myself off, but I must've kept tightening my grip. He never complained. I swear I never heard him say stop. If anything he had been saying more, so I kept squeezing his neck harder. Things were getting pretty intense. I can't remember what happened.

"Inside my head, my mind was howling ecstatically, howling in pure pleasure and pure agony. Both so pure, I felt like I was floating in the ether they say the angels live. I was burying all my humiliation and all my degradation in him; it all left me, and I felt free. I remember thinking, as I fucked him, that the world was becoming a better and better place, that consciousness would become coherent again. Technologies were increasingly integrative, making seamless what once seemed fragmented, and complete depersonalization would become a reality. I remember thinking, as I fucked him and strangled him in that riverboat cabin, that this encounter was a model of complete depersonalization, a model of how it could actually be, how freeing it was, how limitless the possibilities it would create.

"I came; it was over. Exhausted, I fell onto the bed, and as I did so, his body fell, like dead weight, onto the floor. I sat up and looked at him. My first thought was that he had passed out. But when I touched him, I knew he was dead. I don't know how I knew. It's not like in the movies: in real life, you just know. He was dead.

"I got dressed and waited. I didn't know what to do. I had to get out of the room. I went back above deck, to the salon, where a couple other passengers were having drinks. I bought whiskey. I tried to act normal. I watched the other passengers who had also finished with their boys: nasty, lustful queens. God, they disgusted me. Their homosexuality was like a slime that covered them and everything they touched. The way they leered at the younger guys, even now after they had had their way with them. Nothing could ever satisfy such perverts, not even temporarily. The fact of my satiation made me feel morally superior. I was eager for the cruise to end and get away from those filthy queers, and of course to get away from the body I had left behind in the cabin.

"When the boat returned to dock, I drove back to Glenview.

"I'm sending an agent down there to watch the newspapers. I need to know if the kid is really dead, if I really killed him. I don't know what happens next, but I can tell that this event was the beginning of the end."

Durney stopped reading and lowered the journal. He looked questioningly at the night auditor, who took the journal and placed it back inside the padded envelope.

The night auditor asked, "Now do you understand?"

"This is the diary of the man Ellen West was talking about?"

"That's right."

"But how did you come to have his diary?"

"He mailed it to me."

Durney stared at the floor, in a daze, and shook his head, "No, no I don't understand. How could you know him?" He looked up and saw that the night auditor was holding a gun, and that the gun was pointed at him.

The night auditor said, "Four worlds have collided here, Durney. You're the past; he's the past; Todd's the past. I just signed up for the future."

The night auditor fired six rounds into Durney's chest.