Spare Change by Chuck Rothman [fantasy]
“Spare change?” Roger asked.
The man walked just a bit faster, not even making eye contact.
“Have a good evening, sir,” Roger added. He coughed and pulled his worn trenchcoat tighter. October already. Soon it would be winter again, and he wasn’t sure if he could survive the cold.
Florida. That would be such a relief, especially since they ordered the shelters not to take him in. But last year they wouldn’t let him leave New York. There were breakdowns and delayed trains. Not even hitchhiking had worked, though the 30 days in jail had been a relief. They had been very thorough, but, then, they always were. They plotted against him, taking his job and just about everything else from him.
Three years ago, he’d been working for Chase. Now he was begging in the street in a coat you could practically see through, and hoping he wouldn’t have to face another New York winter. His sinuses were already killing him where the chip had been implanted. They had done all this to him and he had no idea why.
Another man was approaching. Maybe today they’d let him get a few dollars. Roger could never be sure when someone said “no” if it was just bad luck, or because people were being told to avoid him. Or maybe a combination. The rules always seemed to be changing. Begging was the only thing they ever let him do. Probably because of the constant humiliation.
“Spare change, mister?” he said.
The man smiled and tossed a couple of quarters his way. “Why certainly, Roger. And that’s just the start.”
Roger jolted at the sound of his name. It had been months since anyone used it. He tried to place the man. He was medium height, and wore an Italian suit that probably cost more than Roger had managed to scrape together in three years of begging. Maybe they had met back when he still worked at the bank. But that was so long ago, before they had done this too him. “You know me?”
“Of course, Roger. We’ve been following you with a lot of interest.”
Then Roger understood. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
The man nodded. “Smart man, Roger. We like that. You can call me Smith, if you like. How’d you like to be treated to lunch at the Bernadin?”
Roger laughed. He knew of the place, one of the fanciest in the city. “They won’t even let me walk by the place. They’re not going to let me inside looking like this.”
Smith only smiled.
The maitre d’ didn’t give Roger a second glance as he seated the two men. No mention of even wearing a tie. No mention of the fact Roger hadn’t had a shower in ages. Just a seat in the best table in the restaurant.
“Try the lamb,” the man said as he picked up the menu.
Roger glanced at the items. “I don’t see it.”
His host just grinned. “You’re with me. They’ll serve it.”
Roger set down the menu. “All right, what’s this all about?”
“I think you get the general idea.”
“You did all this to me, that I know. Who are you?”
“The official name is the Technological Hierarchy for the Education of Mankind, but we prefer call ourselves ‘Them.’ It cuts down on confusion.”
“So you’re one big conspiracy. Like the Kennedy assassination.”
“Oh, please,” Smith said. “We had nothing to do with that; Jack was one of us. No one gets to be President without us; I can tell you the results of the next three presidential elections, if you want. We’ve been running things since the ’40s.”
Smith nodded. “Everything. That’s why we were able to do all this to you.”
“Tell my parents I was dead?”
“We even supplied the body for the funeral.”
“And my friends?”
“You know the answer to that.”
Roger did. When he tried to call, the phones wouldn’t work. When he tried to drive, the car wouldn’t start—when he had a car. When he walked to a friend’s apartment, he’d been arrested. Once the entire apartment building where his ex-girlfriend lived was missing.
“Yeah,” Roger said. “I guess I do. But why me? I can’t see how I could have been any threat to you.”
“Threat?” Smith started to laugh. “Threat?” The laughter was strong and loud now. It went on for several minutes before he managed to get control of himself. “Of course you’re not a threat. We control everything, so there’s nothing you can do to threaten us.”
Roger faced the guffaws with a growing sense of irritation. “Then why?”
“We have nothing to challenge us. We need something to amuse ourselves, to stay sharp. That’s why we invented the Game.”
“Think of it as a form of tag. You will choose the next person to suddenly lose everything. At that point, you’re free.”
“To do what? Starve?”
“Oh, I think you’ll manage. You were one of the best, really. Nearly three years without cracking. Some of us will be happy give you a hand getting your heart’s desire.”
“What do you mean?”
Smith took out a magazine. “Been to the movies much?”
“Other than using one as a place to flop? Of course not.”
“Pity. You’ll have a lot to catch up with.” He opened the magazine and pointed to a picture.
It was an ad for a film. Blinding Justice was the name. Starring Kris Flynn. “So?”
“Take a closer look.”
Roger did. The face was familiar, even if the name was not.
Then it registered.
“My God. It’s her!”
Roger had never known her name. She was just a panhandler hitting him up for spare change. He remembered wondering why she was on the street. Something about her made her seem out of place.
He took pity on her and gave her a fifty.
She had looked at the bill in disbelief. “I’m not a hooker,” she finally said, reluctantly handing the bill back to him.
“I know. Keep it. It’s a gift.”
She rubbed it several times, as though expecting it to vanish. “Thank you,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Oh, thank you. If ever there was an angel on Earth, you’re it.”
Roger had smiled.
But she had turned pale. “Oh, God,” she said. “Oh, God. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean him!” Then she turned to Roger. “I’m sorry, so very sorry.”
Roger had rushed away, thinking his assessment of her sanity was a little too rash.
A week later, they implanted the chip in his nose and it all began.
Roger looked up from the picture. “You did this to her? A beggar?”
“How do you think she ended up a beggar in the first place?” Smith placed his napkin on his lap. “She had played very well, so she got what she wanted most. What do you want most, Roger?”
What I want, thought Roger, was to wipe that grin off your face. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you can decide that later. You have a more important decision first. You need to choose our next subject.”
“Exactly. You must choose someone, knowing full well that he will have his life destroyed. It’s your responsibility.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Oh, you can always decide not to choose anyone. You can continue living like you have. I guarantee you won’t be eating dinner at the Bernadin, that’s for sure.” Smith gave another one of his goddamn smiles. “And the one way to recover your life is to choose. Just say ‘you’re it’ and you’ll pick the next victim. You’ll just sneeze out the chip and be on your way.” He sipped from the water glass. “I’d suggest you choose someone who thinks himself a big success. Someone smug and self-satisfied. They’re always the most fun to watch.”
“Someone like you?”
Smith nodded. “That’s the spirit. Get out all that anger. Maybe there’s some banker or rich man who looks like me. You can get a vicarious revenge.”
Roger had no use for a vicarious revenge right then. “Why not the real thing?” he asked, realizing he had the perfect answer. “You’re it.”
Smith laughed. “I’m afraid others have tried that. No, the rules are it can’t be one of us.”
Roger’s felt like he had fallen down a well.
“So who are you going to choose? Who are you going to condemn to this fate? I admit I find this part of the game the most fascinating. Will you go for revenge on some poor slob who crosses you? Will you try to be noble, until you are so starved that nobility seems beside the point? Will you do it accidentally, like poor Kris? There are so many options.”
“Yes, I am one, aren’t I?” Smith’s laugh was practically a giggle. “But you don’t have to decide right now. Take your time. Think about it. It’s more entertaining that way.”
“That’s all human lives are to you?” Roger was almost shouting, but no one in the restaurant even looked that way. “Entertainment?”
“Of course, Roger,” Smith said, obviously enjoying Roger’s anger. “What else?”
The waiter arrived, a bottle of wine in his hand. “Compliments of the management,” he said.
“Of course,” said Smith, smiling as he looked at the bottle. Then he frowned. “What’s this?”
“Chateau Haut-Brion,” the waiter said with a slight bow. “The most expensive in the house.”
Smith pointed at the label. “This is a ’98.”
The waiter was perplexed. “Yes.”
“This is swill! How dare you!”
The waiter reacted as though there was a lion at his throat. “I assure you—”
“Look, you little shit, you take this bottle of piss back and get me something from a decent year. And tell you boss that if he can’t do better, he’ll be back flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s where he started.”
The waiter had turned white. “Yes, sir,” the waiter said, backing away and bowing.
Roger watched the scene silently, playing with the silverware. “Do you have many friends, Mr. Smith?”
Smith shrugged. “My colleagues.”
“Yes, but are they your friends? Can you trust them?”
“Are you sure?”
“What’s this all about?”
Now it was Roger’s turn to smile. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, is that you guys don’t play fair. You change the rules in the middle of the game, just to see how I’ll jump.”
“That’s our specialty.”
“What makes you think they aren’t changing things right now? Maybe you are the next ‘it’ in this little game of tag.”
Smith shook his head. “I’m one of Them. They wouldn’t turn on me.”
Roger leaned forward. “Wouldn’t they? I think that you just might rub people the wrong way. A little too smug. A little too smart. A little too nasty. People don’t like that. Not even among Them. And I bet you’ve made a few enemies who’d like to see you take a fall.”
Smith began to smooth his red silk tie as though it was a nervous animal. “It’s not going to happen, I’m afraid. You’ll just have to find—”
Roger began to sneeze.
It was a violent fit, one after another. The diners were all staring when, with one last explosive “achoo,” a computer chip fell out his nose and landed on the white tablecloth.
Smith stared at it with a delightful look of horror.
Roger rose. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Smith.” He stood up and tossed a couple of coins on the tablecloth.
“What’s this?” Smith asked. The uncertainty in his voice was very satisfying.
“Spare change,” said Roger. “Better get used to it.”
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