Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.
It had been two solid years of Raglan’s Reign of Terror. Massive defense cuts and welfare spending, increased taxes on capital dispensers and wealth stewards, wars on Christianity and the Second Amendment. People had even begun to wonder whether Raglan had an agenda beyond the earthly, whether his evil was supernatural. Was he maybe, possibly, the Antichrist? Parlay didn’t exactly subscribe to this theory, but he would never go so far as to rule it out. Even if it wasn’t true the line of thought was useful in mobilizing allies to his cause.
As he looked back on it from the fall of ’34, Parlay wondered if the rumors about Raglan being the Antichrist could have started sooner, maybe during the ’32 campaign, and if they had, maybe the outcome of that campaign would have been different. Maybe if Cherrystone believed he was up against the physical embodiment of evil Parlay would have had better luck convincing him to do something about it.
“You have to embrace your faith, Mr. President. That’s the only way.”
“That’s not what the voters want, Parlay. Not after Iran.”
“But the wars were so good to us. They can’t have forgotten the last thirty years so quickly.”
“Meh,” said the President. He sounded as if he’d already accepted his fate. The apathy practically made Parlay want to scream. This was the President, of course, a real, Traditionalist, Republican President so he wasn’t actually going to scream. But that didn’t mean he was about to accept quitting either.
“Well, what does President Cheney have to say about it?”
“Cheney?” Cherrystone practically snarled. “Don’t talk to me about Cheney. Bastard won’t even do a joint appearance at this point. And he’s the one who started it.”
“Absolutely. Put it in play as he was walking out the door.”
“I had no idea, Mr. President.”
“Oh, what can I say, Parlay? The wars have taken their toll. Even with SDI, muscular foreign policy may just be a thing of the past.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing, Mr. President. A bird flew in the window.”
“Just…it’s nothing, sir.”
Cherrystone paused, chewed on the answer for a few seconds. “Listen, Parlay, I appreciate your support. I mean, let’s make sure we keep those checks coming.” He laughed. “Who knows? We may still pull this one out.”
“That’s the spirit, sir.”
“But I’ve got a tee time at Congressional in forty-two minutes. I really should be going.”
“Goodbye, Mr. President.”
Rather than the sort of fond, fawning farewell he was used to, all Parlay got was dead air. He pulled the antique, red receiver from his ear, turned to glare at the thing, the priceless nuclear hotline Reagan had once used to stare down the Russians —metaphorically at least.
Parlay wanted his money back, every darned cent he’d wasted on that feckless fool, this supposed President, Jackson Cherrystone. He wanted a new candidate, someone he could believe in like Reagan or W or Cheney, someone who’d do right by God and America. And he knew that wasn’t about to happen. It was too late.
His blood pressure rising even as darkness seemed to gather around him, the room practically swam with heat. Parlay’s mind filling with a mix of rage and hate and fear of loss, his thoughts turned to the rasping, armored visage of Darth Vader. Which made Parlay even angrier because he absolutely hated Star Wars, let alone the thought of himself in association with its asthmatic symbol of ultimate evil. He slammed down the receiver, instantly regretting the damage he might have done to the priceless, plastic artifact. At that moment, Ravelton Parlay wanted to cry.
The rest of the fall saw the gap between Raglan and Cherrystone widen, Parlay’s ability to contact the President diminishing so much that in the campaign’s final days his sole alternative became prayer, his only hope that God would dispense a mighty miracle to save America, the world and even Parlay’s erstwhile ally, Jackson Cherrystone.
That didn’t happen. Cherrystone lost the Presidency in one horrible, blinding night of racing vote counts, 3-D maps, and crowing heads; took the sort of cross-demographical thunder dumping that left Parlay considering drink for the first time in many moons. Fortunately for Parlay, that wasn’t the end of things. God had other plans for him, and they didn’t include OD-ing on Old Grandad.
When Parlay looked back on things, from the fast-approaching future, he would wonder at the Lord’s power and grace, the fact that God’s elegant plan to save America had already been in motion the night Cherrystone lost the Presidency. More than that, he would smile at the poetry of the new President, Raglan’s, demise, the fact that it would come from within his own Administration.
Besides its role as a monument to God, Parlay saw his estate, Bayousalem, as a sort of temple to America. Set on land that had once been part of a great national forest, Parlay’s home was modeled on the White House—the lawns, the wings, the general shape; not to mention all the marble and security. There were, however, significant differences. Besides having a completely different interior floorplan and being approximately three times the square footage as the shack at 1620 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bayousalem’s main house was gray, not white; a shade that managed somehow to seem sooty and pearly, dirty and luxurious, all at the same time.
Inside, Bayousalem was stuffed with Americana—fabulous “lost” oil paintings and framed parchments, gleaming medals and ornate uniforms, military maps, ceremonial swords, stovepipe hats, corncob pipes, stuffed animal heads, and even the odd cigar store Indian—nowhere more so than at its cool, shadowy center, the Inner Sanctum. This was Parlay’s command post, the place from which he ran the day-to-day of his vast, ever-growing Righteous Burger empire; where he also oversaw, as of late, a little operation he’d decided to codename Virtual Jerusalem.
“I told you we’d be in contact when there was something to discuss, Brother Ali, not before,” Parlay said this in a sugary half-whisper, one that effectively masked his real annoyance.
While fielding surprise calls about top secret plots wasn’t something he relished, the fact that the other party was Abdul Karim Ali, Security Counsel to the Supreme Leader of the Pan-Islamic Federation—thus, the primary go-between to one of his principal clients—meant Parlay needed to remain cordial, if only to lower the boom that much harder later.
“I understand that, Presence. What you don’t seem to understand is that His Holiness wants fresh details, and I have none to give him. He grows more anxious by the hour.”
“And?” Parlay snapped, still speaking in that same sweet voice as he edged forward in his chair.
This was something Parlay was particularly good at: conveying multiple verbal messages simultaneously, messages that would often bounce around in the head of the intended for hours—at times even days—before they were decoded, often subconsciously. As far as the current conversation went, the messages were these: I love you. I’m Muslim. I hate you. I’m Christian. I’ll ruin you. I’ll make you rich. You’re doing the right thing. And you are going to Hell.
“And?” continued Ali, no doubt conscious of only the first two. “And…you have never
seen His Holiness anxious, Presence. Broken furniture, shattered dishes, wives beaten within an inch of death.”
“Literally?” Parlay replied, shocked at the specifics. Sure, he might have imagined His Holiness lacked self-control. He was a heathen, wasn’t he? But the details were amazing in their violence, their barbarism.
“This is in keeping with the Law of Allah, is it not?”
“Right, yes, of course, brother. I must admit to practicing a little softer approach with my own wives.”
“As do I, of course,” Ali replied.
“But one can understand how the Supreme Leader could grow frustrated with so many of them to deal with. All that talking. All that nonsense.”
Ali chuckled. “Twenty-three is quite a few.”
“Seven is enough for me.”
“I have eleven but believe you me, Presence, I understand your economy. To see the Supreme Leader discipline his women is not a pretty sight.”
“Hmm. Well, we certainly don’t want His Holiness to feel inconvenienced by any of this.” God help the damage he’d do.
“Precisely! You understand!” Ali sighed, pleased with his apparent accomplishment. He had an ally, a champion, someone he could believe in. “Now, why don’t we start with your name? His Holiness is particularly keen on fleshing that out.”
“My name?” Parlay feigned shock, flashed a genuine smile as his gaze settled back on the one-way TeleView screen routed through the red phone. There, Ali’s beardy, shemaghed visage hovered beneath a several-inch-long chain of numbers and letters, the readout from Parlay’s scrambler, ending in the amusing abbreviation, AKA.
Parlay loved it when the heathens got cocky. The fact that he could make them feel good, string them along only to rub their noses in their lack of negotiating power, was one of his very favorite things about Virtual Jerusalem. The amount of freedom Parlay felt in this—well, it was like taking down a company you didn’t even want. To recall a pithy bit of commercial wisdom from his fifties, the feeling was priceless.
“You know you can’t have that, Ali.”
“The Angel then, or these operatives you keep referring to, the Natural, the Viking, the Zulu. Just give me something to go on, something to give His Holiness.”
“And what would the Supreme Leader do with this information?”
“Do? He would do nothing of course.”
“Then why does he need it?”
Ali’s breath caught, his voice descending conspiratorially, “One does not ask the Supreme Leader such questions. He wants to know what he wants to know, not what you or I want him to know.”
“Listen, Ali, you may be my brother in Allah…” Parlay paused to shake his head at the repetition, and even more at the meaning of the statement. The things he did for the Lord. “But you’re not going to get any more information out of me.”
“Except for one thing.” Parlay turned from the TeleView, focused on the giant wall screen at the other end of the Sanctum. There, he found his trump, Diana Scorsi.
She lay sleeping, Parlay’s #1, the Natural, Jack Justice, sitting in a chair by her bedside, intent on the pages of his simple study Bible. The lights low, a fireplace just beyond, lit and flickering, the scene might almost have seemed romantic had Justice not been armed with a high caliber handgun and wearing a George W. Bush mask.
“The question isn’t how anymore, Ali. It’s whether you’re in or out?”
Ali clucked his tongue and paused, perhaps unsure of where things were going, except that the destination was not a friendly one. “Presence, we are in of course. How much longer will it be? The Supreme Leader is anxious to test the technology.”
“Not long now. There’s still the matter of coming to terms, though.”
“I thought we had.”
“Refresh my memory.”
Ali paused. For a few seconds, all Parlay heard was his breathing, heavy and quick. Obviously, Ali was surprised by this latest twist, perhaps even dismayed. Which was a fair reaction since the two men had agreed on a final number less than two weeks before. None of which meant Parlay was going to let up on him.
Parlay stayed quiet, careful to preserve his power over the conversation. Thirty seconds later, Ali continued as Parlay had known he would, “The figure was one half trillion U.S., in ragged numbers, routed, sub-routed, and split between the million accounts. Do you not remember?”
“Ah, no, I do…it’s just that…well, how to put this? The Angel wants more.”
Parlay waited. The Angel was Dr. Morton School, Deputy Director of the National Science Federation. School was the disgruntled egghead who’d brought Parlay the Symmetra deal two years earlier, but he didn’t want more money. He just wanted to hurt Raglan. Parlay was the one who wanted more money, among other things.
“How much more?” Ali continued.
“Your best offer should be sufficient.”
“We already gave you our best offer.”
“A better best offer then.”
“Better best? I don’t even know what that means.”
“It means surprise me.”
“Surprise…This is a betrayal, Presence. The Supreme Leader will have my head.”
“Oh, please. We both know you’re safe, brother. Just convince him to improve the offer. No doubt, there will be a special bonus for you when he does.”
“From the Supreme Leader? I think not. Unless you count keeping my head.”
Parlay laughed. “I was speaking of something in my sphere of influence. Call it a finder’s fee.”
Ali lowered his voice again, but this time Parlay could almost hear the smile. “How much of a finder’s fee would we be talking about?”
“Mmm…” Parlay paused. He reached down, brushed invisible lint from his spotless, white lapel. By the time he looked back at the TeleView, Parlay barely noticed Ali.
Sure, his partner was still there, waiting. Parlay could make out his silhouette clearly enough. His focus wasn’t on it though. Another image had attracted Parlay’s gaze…
The white hair, the deep tan, the face that barely looked sixty—all of it the result of the hours a day spent with various trainers, aestheticians, and other handlers. Parlay was still incredibly handsome, and he knew it. In fact, sitting there, staring at himself, Parlay couldn’t help thinking he looked just a little like an angel looming over Ali’s shoulder.
“Presence, are you still there?”
“More money than you’ve ever dreamed of,” Parlay added nonchalantly. He’d learned long ago that the most important thing to remember when you were negotiating a deal was to act like you believed what you said, especially when you didn’t.
“Ah…Now, I begin to understand the contingencies of which you speak. I will do my best, Presence.”
“Don’t take too long, Ali. You know, tick tock, tick tock.”
“As you say, brother. As-Salāmu `alaykumu.”
“Wa `alaykumu s-salāmu wa rahmatu l-lāhi wa barakātuh, brother.”
The TeleView flashed to black. Parlay returned the red phone to its cradle. He nodded and smiled, satisfied with how the call had gone, particularly the way it had ended. He leaned back in his desk chair and put up his feet, ran his hand across the surface of his desk, the beloved battlefield secretary that had been Andrew Jackson’s. As he did, Parlay imagined the battles that went with each bullet hole or sword nick, the knocks and gouges acquired carting it from one field of carnage to the next. He imagined it all as a sort of tactile tapestry, a record of one small part of American history.
Parlay’s grin soon faded though. He’d found the v-shaped gash that had been his favorite detail once upon a time. He’d constructed an entire story around it, one of a Seminole brave attempting to assassinate Old Hickory, but dying instead on the end of his saber. Lately, however, the spot seemed only to remind him of something completely different.
Kelly Anne had become too comfortable with her position. She’d begun to think that Parlay needed her, that she couldn’t be replaced. She was withholding herself, had been for months now. And even at his advanced age, Parlay had needs. He had desires. Desires that had a lot more to do with availability than consummation.
Kelly Anne had seemed so perfect once upon a time. That first night he’d seen her gyrating on the sidelines at the Saints game. That tight little black and gold number. Her body round and lean in just the right places. All that beautiful auburn hair shaking behind her like a fox’s foxy little tail. Pretty soon, Parlay was telling Martha to get out of Bayousalem, screaming at her to never come back. And she never did. Parlay’s lawyers were too good, their prenup too sound for Martha to be able to make any real trouble. But it wasn’t working out with Kelly Anne either. And Parlay was growing restless, beginning to look for the woman who would replace his fourth wife. Which brought his thoughts back to Diana Scorsi. He hit the preset for the cell chip in Justice’s ear, rose and walked towards the wall screen.
“Presence?” Justice responded with a start.
“How’s the interrogation going, son?”
“I was waiting for you.”
“It’s a simple question, Natural. I asked why.”
“You said you wanted to run the questioning.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly have said that.”
“You’ve got the experience, don’t you?”
Justice’s experience amounted to six hours in the Iraq War, at the end of which the wrong imam lay dead and Corporal Jack Justice was well on his way to being Former Corporal Jack Justice. Still, that was way more interrogation experience than Parlay himself had—unless you counted board meetings, and you really couldn’t. At least not for these purposes.
“I guess. I just…I’m sure you said you wanted to be involved.”
“Never mind, Natural. Just wake her.”
Parlay watched as Justice stood, W’s decisive grin trembling with the effort. He claimed a hypo from the nightstand, tapped the plunger, and slipped the silver tip into Scorsi’s beautiful, lithe arm.
Seconds passed then her eyelids began to flutter. A few more and her eyes came alive like the work of God they were. Light blue and icy, they gave her face an alien, angelic quality, one that was only augmented by the prominence of her cheekbones, the way they swept up and outwards, almost like a dual staircase in some fine, Antebellum mansion. The overall effect was to make Scorsi seem both more and less than human—not just otherworldly but ethereal or spectral, untouchable, insubstantial. With her brilliance and her will, she would be a prize, no question; something far beyond Kelly Anne. First things first, though.
“Miss Scorsi,” Parlay said.
“Presence. Just Presence will be fine.”
“You’re in charge.”
“In charge? Oh, you need to put that contentiousness completely out of your mind, Miss Scorsi. We’re here to work together, to be friends.”
“This is about Symmetra?”
She rubbed her temples. “Look, we’ve got a massive mistake here. You guys think Symmetra’s something it’s not. It’s a research program, nothing more.”
“Research into religion?”
“Metaphysics, whatever you want to call it.”
“How about if I want to call it religion?”
She worried the inside of her lip, waited.
“The point, Miss Scorsi, is that we know all about your technology. We know that if you reversed a few things, if you restricted the database to say, one religion’s teachings, you’d have a pretty effective evangelism program.”
“Hallelujah,” Justice sang.
She looked at him and sneered, an entirely appropriate reaction since Justice did, in that moment, look a lot like a nitwit. “You might think you know.”
“But you don’t,” she added.
Justice shook his head.
Before Justice could make himself look like any more of a dolt, Parlay broke back in, “Oh, but we do know. We’ve done our research. We have our sources.”
“Who? What sources?”
Parlay heard something in her voice, something inside her beginning to give, to break. “So you admit I’m right? Symmetra can be changed? It can be turned to the service of the Lord?”
“I’m not admitting anything. Except one thing.” She continued, “Even if that were possible, I’d never be involved in it. It would be brainwashing.”
Parlay smiled. He knew he had her, knew he’d walked her at least that far down the road she needed to travel. He could ease up for a little while, try to lull her into the illusion that control, for her, was still a possibility. He wagged his finger at the screen. “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Miss Scorsi. It only counts as brainwashing if it’s not the truth.”