I left Uncle Grump's penthouse that night with a great feeling of relief, the kind one might expect to experience when the governor shouts "Stop!" just as the warden's finger touches the button. Reprieve! Stay of execution! It had all worked out much better than I could have hoped mere hours before. Perhaps I'd misjudged dear old Great Uncle Grumpitz. Perhaps age was mellowing the old fellow, as it alters a young, harsh, tongue biting wine into a fine, palate pleasing delight. Perhaps I'd been wrong in judging time to be merely pickling the codger. A few short hours before I'd been a young man on the slide, not even knowing how serious was the crisis that I'd so casually fallen into. Now, thanks to Uncle Grumpitz, I had prospects. I would have a position. More importantly, I would have an income.
The evening was still new, especially for one who followed my policy of not arising until the sun was well on its way. Take no chances; stay under the covers until dawn is a dead certainty. What a waste it is to leap out of bed and discover it's all a false alarm. Therefore, I was far from ready to retire. I decided to do a bit of reconnoitering. Spy out the lay of the land for the morrow. I was a bit curious, as anyone would be, as to the nature of my new employment. Taken aback as I was by the offer I had neglected to ask as to the nature of the job or, for that matter, the nature of the company I was to work for.
I took out the business card that Uncle Grump had given me. In the center was a name and title, "M. Beeson, Vice President, Operations". In the top left corner was the company name, Resource Optimization, and an address, 1485 Megenheim Street, Suite 12. Scrawled across the bottom, in Uncle Grump's impatient hand, was "8 A.M. SHARP".
The barest of information there. However, the address was nearby, on the edge of the financial district, simply two lefts, a right and a dash down an alley from Uncle Grump's door. Perhaps I could determine something by an inspection of the premises. Off I went and in ten minutes or so had located the home of my soon-to-be employer.
It was closed up, as one would expect at this hour. Externally it was much like any other business building in the district. Imposing, in its black speckled granite facade, but also anonymous. One of many such buildings. On a superficial level, details of this and that and the arrangement of the trim around the doors, it was different and distinct from its neighbors, yet on a slightly higher level, above the petty details, not really any different from its neighbors. Dull light shone through the heavy glass doors. To the left, set at eye level in the wall, a directory plate glowed with soft phosphorescence. Running my nose up within a mole's reading distance, I was able to make out a series of names. Some were individuals, usually with analphabet soup of letters behind them, others collections of names of individuals, usually with their own particular letter combinations appended. Then there were the peculiar products of those individuals who specialize in creating nom-de-guerre for partnerships, associations and other corporate entities. Some few identified the nature of dealings of the bearers, either incorporating descriptive phrases within the name or as a sort of suffix to the name. Most did not, choosing to camouflage their occupation in words that sounded impressive but gave away nothing as to what those behind the words actually did. Resource Optimization occupied a spot about in the middle and had opted to be among the nots.
Well, thought I, if one comes to do business with Resource Optimization, one obviously must know what that business is before dropping in.
The more I rolled that name around, the more I liked the sound of it. It had that something, that sense of substance suggested by the word resource. How can you argue with a firm that deals in resources. Likes them so much they take the very word as part of their name. None of your mincing boutique businesses here. Solid pillars of the industrial world, that's what a name like that suggests. And optimization. That had a lovely ring to it. A touch of science, technology, modern alchemy in that word. Cold, pure, rational activity. Resource Optimization. The more I said it the better it sounded. I had a feeling it would sound well indeed at asocial function.
"Ah, yes. I'm employed at Resource Optimization. You know of it? No? Well, not surprising, really. Not many outside our little niche know of us. Let me tell you a bit..."
Yes. That should go down very well indeed. It's always important to have suitable openers on hand to get the conversation going. I have acquaintances who profess that the single most important reason for holding a job is to provide them with something to talk about at.
In this delightful frame of mind I began to make my way back home. I retraced my steps back past the residence of wonderful old Uncle Grump and then stepped aboard the first of the series of slidewalks to take me back to my humble abode on the far side of The City. The first stage took me to the Blakeshaw Gate, its black basalt pillars delineating the traditional bounds of the financial district. From the gate it was onto another slidewalk, moving briskly down the center of Graflein Esplanade, and then across Quercus Park. Augmenting the slidewalks with an easy stroll I'd be home in another twenty minutes or so. Then off to bed and a goodnight's sleep before beginning my new career.
Or so it might have been. Instead I dallied a bit at Quercus Park, stepping off the slidewalk to stroll one of the round-about paths. The elder moon was just up and the younger was high in the sky, providing more than enough light to stray from the main, well lit pathways. The peculiar characteristic of the native pseudo-oak of curling its leaves with nightfall increased the amount of light filtering down to ground level and gave an unseasonable autumnal cast to the scene. The dark, twisting shapes of the squat, gnarly troll oaks and the tall, columnar titan oaks combined with the gothic tracery of shadows they cast were food for the imagination, especially the imagination in a buoyant, whimsical frame of mind. My imagination automatically began to recall those childhood stories woven around trees and woodlands, the benign and the horrific tales of innocents lost and bizarre, malevolent creatures found in the dark fastness of the primeval forest. Therefore I jumped, just slightly, when I heard my name called out.
"Dunstan! By gosh and golly and the blood of any number of saints, it is! Dunstan Malvern, himself, it 'tis. Straying a bit far from your usual haunts, aren't you, m'lad?"
From out of the shadows, along a side path of a side path, his identity betrayed by the unmistakable voice and the ridiculous attempt at putting on an ancient Irish accent, came the form of Malcolm Dunfey. Trailing slightly, and nearly lost in the shadows, was the pixie like shape I recognized as Sydne Sigrest. Even in the shadows the peculiar, off center top knot she habitually formed her hair into was an unmistakable indicator.
"Been off to dine with my beloved Great-Uncle Grumpitz," I said.
"If I'd known you were so close to starvation as to resort to visiting Uncle Ogre, I'd have organized a relief expedition. We could surely have found some old friends to chip in a crust of bread for your benefit. I presume you're not having a jest at my expense?"
"Certainly not! The delightful old gentleman merely asked me over to break bread, toss back a splendid bottle and discuss a business arrangement."
"Now we know he's having us on," said Sydne. "Is this the Dunstan we've known for many long years? The one who so often whiled away an evening telling us tales of the malevolent doings of his few surviving relatives? I suggest, Malcolm, that you wrestle him to the ground and remove his mask. He's obviously an impostor posing as Dunstan, though why anyone would want to is beyond me."
"Perhaps it's Dunstan, and he's slipped into some strange mental infirmity. Delusions, hallucinations, and all those sorts of perturbations. You are feeling all right, aren't you, Dunstan? Not giddy, light-headed? Confused perhaps? How many fingers am I holding up?"
"None. Your hands are in your pockets."
"Excellent! His night vision hasn't been afflicted by this strange illness. It'll make it that much easier for us to guide him to the clinic. I'm sure we could raise enough among his grieving friends to purchase a lobotomy."
"I assure you I'm perfectly all right. It sounds strange, I grant you, but it's true. Uncle Grump seems to have mellowed somewhat. He was very nearly civil during dinner, and then he announced that he'd arranged a job for me."
I thought it somewhat unnecessary to go into the less flattering details of our discussion.
"Perhaps we should take up a collection to buy the Grump a lobotomy. I'm sure his business associates would dearly love to contribute. Probably raise enough to buy him several. I don't doubt some of his long time friends would even offer to do the work themselves, gratis. Come along with us, Duncie. We'll discuss the proposition over a mug and a plate of tapas."
"I've already eaten, but a bit of frothy wouldn't be unwelcome. Where to, navigator?"
"'Another Cheap Dive'. Myron's working there so we can count on the service, if nothing else."
"No offense, but cheap dives seem somehow to be Myron's proper milieu. Which one is Myron working at now?"
"I told you. 'Another Cheap Dive'."
"Yes, I understand that. I was just inquiring as to the name of the cheap dive we're going to."
"That is its name. 'Another Cheap Dive'."
"Oh. At least there's no question here of false advertising."
And so my course veered from that originally plotted. The evening was still young and I've always felt it worthwhile to inspect new eateries. Even if their product proves indigestible, they still provide material for conversation. And besides, who knows whom one might meet and what opportunities might arise. An egg doesn't become an omelette by staying in the refrigerator.
On through the moonlit park the three of us went, thence via another slidewalk to the Lukins Rise District, a mixed neighborhood of shoulder to shoulder two story homes, artisans' shops and eateries. Befitting its character as a haunt of those with craftsman and artist temperaments, or at least pretenses to such, the area was well populated in the evening hours. Many of the locals ran shops where they created and hawked objects of craft or art more as a supplement to their regular Birthright stipends than as regular employment and felt no need to maintain what dealers in staples might consider regular hours. As a result there was considerable hustle and bustle all about. The scenes in most of the shops resembled more nearly informal social gatherings than typical retail transactions.
After perhaps ten minutes we stopped in front of a two story, stucco, multi-unit residence, not much different from any of its neighbors.
"I believe this is the place," Malcolm said. "Never been here before. Going solely on the directions Myron com'd me this morning."
He stepped closer to inspect the number. I saw no sign of a food and drink service establishment and must admit my faith in the Dunfey nose for refreshment was beginning to weaken just a bit. Just then there came the sound of a door opening, and with it rumbling undertones of a large number of people talking, laughing and generally engaging in social intercourse. From the narrow alley that separated the building from its neighbor to our right staggered a largish fellow, obviously under the influence of more than mother's milk.
"Yes, the number matches," said Malcolm. "You might ask that fellow if he knows of the whereabouts...." He stopped in mid-sentence. It was quite obvious from our prospective informant's unsteady gait that he would be lucky to be able to deduce his own current whereabouts. "Never mind. I do believe our destination is quite close. Probably right around this corner."
He led us around the corner of the building. There, in a narrow alleyway, stairs led down to a basement door, a solid, sound deadening one. A small goose necked lamp, its frosted glass cover and heavy wire protective cage suggesting its industrial ancestry, illuminated a floridly artistic sign announcing "Another Cheap Dive."
"Well, it does say dive, doesn't it?" Sydne said, looking down the stairs.
"Rather unique, wouldn't you say? If this is indicative of the rest of the establishment, I expect we'll have to give them a high score for ambiance. Onward!"
As eldest of the Dunfey brood, Malcolm habitually took the role of leader. Taking the steps two at a time, he led us into Another Cheap Dive. Once through the door, I immediately gave the proprietors high marks for ambition. Not just the basement of this one house, but also those of the surrounding buildings had been taken over. Arched passageways, lined in brick facade or tile, had been cut through the separating concrete walls, creating a complex of rooms and galleries, a veritable catacomb filled with diners and drinkers.
Each room was unique, some having normal tables and chairs, others tables and chairs suggesting past eras and styles. Still others had low, round tables surrounded by cushions. Some walls had been wainscoted, others frescoed. More sported jungles of hanging plants or bric-a-brac or tapestries. Few of the furnishings matched any other items in the place. The proprietors had obviously outfitted their establishment by scouting cast-off sales far and wide. The overall effect was both garish and delightful. Kitsch taken to the level of art or the depths of excess. It was impossible to decide.
Our round about inspection finally brought us into a room dominated by vinous plants cascading from numerous rustic containers hung randomly on the walls. In one corner a cliff face of mossy rocks had been constructed. Streams of water splashed their way from rock to rock to end up in a small pool at the base. Subtly shifting blue and green lights set in the upper walls and ceiling gave the impression of a swaying jungle canopy.
And there in the middle of the room, occupying a table by himself, was Morgan Dunfey, chronologically the second of the Dunfey foursome. He appeared to have been there for some time as evidenced by several empty glasses, but was still conscious enough to wave us over.
"Malcolm!" he called out. "About time you made your appearance. Myron told me you'd be appearing tonight so I waited on dinner."
"How kind. You haven't bought me dinner in quite some time. I am deeply, deeply touched."
"You misunderstand. I waited so you could buy me dinner."
"I suspect, dear Malcolm," said Sydne, "that you're about to be touched even more deeply."
"Sydne! I didn't see you there! Why don't you join Malcolm and myself for a late, light supper? By the way, how are your finances holding out?"
"They're holding quite well, actually. I took a precaution and put a transfer hold on them for the evening. Just in case."
Myron put on his best look of injured innocence. "Oh clever girl! One would think you suspected us of looking forward to more than just your company at dinner. To think ..."
"You forget. I've dined with you before."
"So you have. And who's this?" Myron had undoubtedly noticed me before, but the time seemed opportune for a transition away from discussing previous dinners.
"Dunstan Malvern! Alive and well, and since we're on the subject how are your finances these days. They make an excellent Sybaris Slugger here and I had rather hoped to have one or two more, but alas, my ready cash account has not kept pace with my thirst and I'm loathe to make unscheduled dips into my capital."
"I regret to report that my financial health is at the moment somewhat fragile," I said.
"Pity. Sorry to hear that, but then there seems to be a lot of that going around lately."
"Still, it appears things will be improving shortly," I continued.
"How so? If you're onto something lucrative it would be only decent to share it with your old comrades in arms."
I launched again into a brief synopsis of the evening's events. Getting to the end, I inquired as to any knowledge of my new employer. There were blank looks all around.
"Resource Optimization? Hmmm. Sounds like something one should know about," mused Malcolm. "Pithy sort of name, very solid sounding. But it really tells you nothing."
"It seems to me I've heard of it, but I can't for the life of me pin it down," said Sydne. "It seems as if it's one of those names that's so common you don't even notice it." She shrugged, giving up the effort.
"I know what you mean. It's there in the back of my mind. Or maybe I only think it is because you've suggested it. Here comes Myron. Maybe he's heard of it." Myron Dunfey, the third of the brothers approached, wearing an apron patterned in thin gray and black stripes. The coloring failed to hide the splattered evidence of the night's labor transporting dishes and glasses. We posed him the question.
"Never heard of it. By the by, the management has requested me to ask if you're here to order? Morgan seems to have made them somewhat leery, occupying that table for so long."
"I've kept up my side of the commercial contract," Morgan said, in mock disgust. "I would tell you how many Sluggers I've put away, but I really can't remember, and that alone should be proof of my good patronage."
"I think, dear brother, we'll start with a round of these famous Sybaris Sluggers the family reprobate is so fond of, and perhaps an appetizer as well," Malcolm said.
"Have you, as an employee, any suggestions or warnings as to the food here?" Sydne inquired.
"Well, generally the best course is to start of with one of the tapas platters. Very small portions of a variety of menu items, all of a sort that can be consumed as a prelude to more substantial fare or, by incrementing the quantity, serve as a main dish. There are several combinations to choose from, if you'll peruse the inside cover of the menu. Then, if you find anything edible, you can order the full entree. Or you can move along to another tapas platter. The crevys steamed in herbed wine and served with garlic oil are particularly good tonight."
"Hmmm. The number three looks possible," Sydne said. "What do you think, Malcolm?"
"It looks fine to me. I don't see anything there they can do too badly. A number three it is and a round of sluggers all around."
Myron went off on the circuitous way to the kitchen. Morgan looked around and said, "Do you think we should have ordered a drink for the last of the line?"
"Who?" I asked.
"The afterthought. Brother Merton."
"But he's not here," I said, somewhat puzzled.
"He will be," said Sydne. "Dunfeys travel in hordes, you know. Rather like locusts."
Myron returned with the drinks. Morgan was correct. They did make an excellent slugger. And all the good natured joking aside, from the smells that wafted through the room I suspected the food was not half bad, either. Despite the dinner I'd had earlier, I was beginning to experience that sort of hunger that comes not from the stomach expressing its needs, but from the nose expressing its curiosity and the taste buds exhibiting an inexcusable greed.
As Sydne predicted, Merton, the youngest of the Dunfey brothers appeared, and, as if on cue, so did the somewhat ad hoc entertainment of the establishment. An exotic dancer had twirled her way in from the next room and began making a circuit of the tables, dancing briefly here and then executing a series of clever moves that placed her there. She was quite good. Malcolm pointed this out to Sydne, who seemed to take offense at an anatomical reference and attempted to pin various of his extremities to the table with a fork. I'd like to tell you what else happened that evening, but to tell the truth, I haven't the vaguest recollection.Go to Chapter 3