Hello again, fellow readers and writers! It’s been a long time since I produced any samples of writing from my group’s anthology, but rest assured we’ve all been busy creating, editing, and illuminating. I myself have been rather derelict in this pursuit recently, having left my prologe story (The Torch) to sit idle for some time. However, I’m back on it now that I’m back in town and have finished work on the latest segment.
I plan to fashion just a few more to finish the piece, which will introduce the larger story, and then get back to recruiting and editing. As it stands, more than two-thirds of the stories have been claimed, one third have been completed, and the rest are still up for grabs. If you’ve been proffered an invitation, consider this your reminder notice. We still need you! I urge you, be the ones to help this vision of the future reach completion before it is too late…
Anyhoo, here is the third segment of Torch, fresh off the press and straight to your laptops, tablets, ereaders or PDAs. Enjoy!
* * *
The aged mirror’s appraisal of him was less than flattering. It’s ornate brass frame was a thing of beauty, but the tainted glass looked very much as he felt. He finished with his tie, turned to face the room, and moved back in to face the music. Hours of speeches, public addresses, and his own presentation; and yet, he felt that this portion of the evening was the true test of mettle. Walking through the crowd of entrepreneurs, states people and representatives felt like walking a particularly malicious gauntlet. At least when he was on stage he could pretend to be addressing an empty room. The bright lighting made it almost seem as such.
All part of the job description, he told himself. His first stop was to the couple immediately to his left. The Russian Minister of the Environment, Kirill Minksi. Muktari didn’t recognize the woman on his arm; presumably she was someone he was sleeping with, if not his wife.
“Doctor Muktari, quite the lovely lecture,” he said, taking his hand and shaking it firmly. “It was like being in school all over again.”
“Really?” Muktari said. “Do you mean enlightening or stifling and subject to the idiosyncrasies of a single man?”
Both Minski and the woman on his arm laughed. He quickly turned to her and made the introduction. “Where are my manners? Doctor Magid Muktari, this is Klavdiya Chauchat.”
“Ah yes, the ballerina?” he said, looking at her with a forced smile. Chauchat made a demure little gesture, something akin to a curtsey. “A pleasure, I assure you.”
“Enchanté,” she replied. She placed her fingers in his hand. Muktari chuckled and planted a gentle kiss on them. How little things had changed. Leading ladies still being escorted by men of power and influence, though now it was to summits rather than balls. At least the décor was still just as elegant, and the refreshments just as expensive.
“I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk, Doctor,” Minsky said next. “You’re reputation in government circles precedes you.”
“Is that so?”
“Why yes,” Minsky said with a look of surprise. “I attended the symposium in Luxembourg back in thirty-eight. You lectured there alongside Pracha and Suzuki. You were very good.”
“I remember,” he said. That was in the days of the Luxemburg Agreement, where he had been arguing for governments to include water usage and forestation as basic protocols. He had been but a mere player in those days, taking his cue from more senior experts. He supposed that Minsky saw it as a compliment to be mentioning him in conjunction with the others.
“I was discouraged that it did not have the desired effect.”
Minski chuckled sheepishly. He knew exactly what Muktari meant by that. As soon as the talks in Luxemburg ended, Minsky and his fellow Senators went home to vote the Agreement down in the Federation Council. Many of Muktari’s own colleagues spent years in the East trying to clean things up as a result.
“Well,” Minski said, raising his glass. “Here’s hoping you and your colleagues have greater success this time around.”
Muktari stifled the urge to say something even more impertinent. He had learned some time ago that certain minds could not be swayed, and reminding of them of that fact was an even less worthy enterprise. He issued a courteous farewell to Muktari and even more cordiale one to Chauchat.
One down, he thought. So, so many to go.
That prospect immediately became cheerier when he spotted a familiar figure standing at the bar. A glass of single malt with ice in his hand and a Tamaki in his mouth. And of course, he looked about as uncomfortable as Muktari felt.
Grigore Mazzini, a fellow company man he had seen since their work in Tunisia. He remembered those days fondly, or more importantly, the nights when he and Mazzini would steal away from the array they had been working on to sample the night life in the capitol. Naturally, Zimmerman had decided to send people from other sectors in to represent their company. He was hoping he might find it at some point during the evening, as he was about the only face he both knew and could expect genuine kindness from.
“Dining on ashes, old friend?” he said as he approached. Mazzini looked at him curiously and then laughed when he saw who it was.
“Magid, you old provocateur, you!”
They embraced in front of the bar and gave each other a hearty kiss on the cheek, as was Muktari’s native custom. When they pulled apart, they were sure to complement each other on their choice of wear.
“I see you’ve updated your old vice?” he asked, nodding to the companion in his hand. Mazzini looked at it as well and scoffed.
“Only way I could smoke in here was to ensure the gentlemen at the door that they were vaporizers.” He took a long haul and let out a tiny vapor trail, watched as it disappeared a short distance from his lips. “Ah! And it’s just not the same.”
Muktari laughed and leaned against the bar with him. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you for one?”
Mazzini reached into his jacket and produced a case. He raised his glass just as soon as Muktari took one and activated it between his lips.
“Shall I tempt you with a spot of devil’s nectar as well?”
Muktari shook his head. “You know me, one vice at a time. Besides, I need some clarity if I want to make it through the night.”
“Trust me, friend. The only way either of us is making it through the night is with a proper numbing.”
“Hmm, I’d prefer a little morphine, in that case.”
Mazzini let out a great big belly laugh. A few heads turned, but otherwise the festivities were undisturbed. And more importantly, Muktari felt like he was actually beginning to enjoy himself a little. Alas, they both knew they couldn’t hide at the bar forever. As company men, they were here at the behest of someone else, and that required them to network and dialogue as much as possible between presentations. The after-parties were as important as the proceedings themselves when it came to fostering goodwill and securing the cooperation of vested interests. Hell, some would say they were even more important.
After a few minutes of idle conversation, Mazzini changed the course of their conversation. The way he introduced it let Magid know it was a matter of some delicacy.
“I, uh, heard an office rumor shortly before I left,” he said, taking a bit of a pause. “It seems they are looking for someone new to head up reclamation in the Arctic Circle. Out of our offices in Oslo.”
“Really?” Magid said. Not exactly a choice position, as it involved a considerable time on board ice trawlers and visiting monitoring stations in the high Arctic, such as Iceland and Baffin Island. Magid’s heart sank when he realized why the topic would be considered delicate…
“Oh no, you don’t mean –”
“I’m afraid so,” Mazzini said. “Word around the offices was that you were considered the top contender, given your background and rumors that you were kicking up some dirt.”
Magid buried his hands in his face. “Oh dear God, no.”
He felt Mazzini’s hand on his shoulder, heard on the onset of comforting words.
“I’m sorry, friend. I tried to warn you that your predilection for taking the long view and saying what you really thought might get you into trouble someday. Though this is considered a promotion, of sorts, everyone felt that you would surely not fail to get the message.”
“They can’t just fire me,” he said decisively. “They’re hoping I quit.”
Mazzini cleared his throat. “Seeing as how I’m letting you in on things, I should also point out that your last assignment was intended to have the same effect. Who knew you would actually find working in the Maghreb to be fulfilling. After you came back with that your presentation in your docket, I’m guessing they figured a transfer to the opposite extreme might… dampen you’re enthusiasm.”
“You mean chill it,” Magid corrected. “Well… message received.”
Mazzini patted him on the shoulder again. “As I said, my friend. I am truly sorry. If there was anything I could do…”
“I know,” Magid replied with a nod. Alas, they were just a bunch of company men, doing as they were told and going where they had to. Little more could be expected of them. “I think I’ll take that drink now.”
Mazzini looked genuinely surprised. “Are you sure?”
“Why not? Seems piety is a little wasted on me right now. Besides, I hear the whiskey is quite good.”
Mazzini laughed, though it sounded tempered. Though he was happy his friend would be joining him in a round, he was a bit hesitant to be involved in his corruption as well. Mazzini needed few excuses to tilt a glass, but anger and depression were good reasons not to in his mind. Still, he called the barman over and ordered two more glasses of what he was drinking.
“Two more Bruichladdich’s please, with ice.”
The barman nodded and went off to fetch their drinks. Many long seconds passed before any words passed between them again. When they did, they sounded about as delicate as before, though arguably more conspiratorial.
“Magid, please don’t look in her direction, but I must inform you that a pretty young thing is looking at you from the far corner.”
Magid sipped from his glass and nodded casually. Adjusting his head ever so slightly to employ his peripherals, be caught little more than blobs of color. For this, he would need more accurate coordinates.
“Which corner would that be?”
“Uh, north-east by my reckoning. Please don’t look at her, she’s still watching.”
“Well…” Magid said, confounded. “Could you describe her to me?”
“Long dark hair, lovely tan complexion, dark dress with a string of precious stones and just enough leg showing to give this old man an injection of frisk.” He swirled the ice cubes in his glass fervently. “I do so hope she’s looking at myself, though I imagine she’s more of what you could use right now.”
Magid chuckled, but shook his head. “Using ladies is not my speed, friend. Besides, I think I’m a little too depressed to be good company to anyone right now.”
“You sure? You’ll change your mind when you see her…”
Finally, and as casually as possible, she looked back in her direction and did a quick spot check. Mazzini was right, in all respects. He caught barely a wisp of her, but she was every bit as beautiful as his friend had let on. Far too comely to be gazing at the likes of them with anything approaching visceral interest.
“I don’t think so. Probably an industrial spy, or our competition, looking to eek some information out of us.”
“At the moment, I don’t care,” Mazzini said, quickly downing his second glass. “And if you’re sure you’re not up to the task, I’m definitely going to approach her. Let us just pray she’s not a professional, working the room.”
Magid frowned and chuckled, more deeply and sinisterly this time. Leave it to good ol’ Grigore to out a dirty spin on things. Leave it to him to leave him high and dry with his depression and the breaking of moral strictures as well. He eyed the glass in front of him and considered sending it back, but at the moment, he needed something to drown his feelings. Taking the glass in hand, he made a quick go of it, and quickly regretted the transaction.
“Whoa…” the barman said, a thick Russian accent discernible. “Another for you, sir?”
“No thank you,” he said, casting a look in Mazzini’s direction. His large frame now completely blocked the image of the stunning young woman. He cast a look around the room, and saw nothing but a night of pointless interaction as well.
Producing a fifty Euro note, he paid for his and Mazzini’s drinks and headed for the coat room. It was going to be a long night, and with nothing more to gained from doing his job, he would spend it doing something arguably less… productive.
* * *
And that’s section III down, and just three or so more to go! Hoping to avoid stretching those out, as I’m already 6,544 words in and only half-way done, by my reckoning. As you can imagine, I’d like to avoid what I did with Winston Agonistes, which was to break the word count limit by a factor of 2 to 3, depending on which limit I choose to go by. Originally, my group and I had agreed on a 5000 word limit, but we were willing to up it to 8000 in case of necessity. At 15,961 words, you might say I abused that limit just a little. Man, I must like to write ;)!