Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Eleven: Chicago

        Jimmie Oldsen. People who didn't understand anything about what he did called him a hacker. In another time, they would have called him a wizard. They'd be right and wrong either way, and still wouldn't have a clue.
        He'd grown up with computers. The heretofore-alien concept was perfectly natural to some members of his generation, so they had no misguided preconceptions to get in their way. Language is so much easier to learn as a child. They left the grups behind and didn't bother to tell them.
        Jimmie's playgrounds were not of the mundane world of his parents, but spanned a universe still aborning. His fields of dreams were electronic imaginations populated by hideous mutants from terrifying dimensions and littered with the blasted corpses of Space Marines. His unseen playmates bore strange names and had stranger visions. His childhood quests and expeditions led through uncharted mazes deep in the bowels of secret sites that futiley dared to keep him out.
        High school was disposed of early, as an afterthought, a distraction. Already, he had accomplished the kinds of things that were analogous in stature to those feats of other young men who became professional athletes, rock stars or drug dealers — and was even more lucrative, if not as well remarked. His proud parents, both of them successful (and busy) professionals who indulged his expensive hobby, were horrified to learn that he had no intention of attending college. He could not make them understand that such a course was beneath him, so he won the argument by buying them a house they would otherwise never have dreamed of. With cash.
        For himself, he bought a building. Created something new and incomprehensible that kept a lot of people busy for some reason. His IPO went through the roof, part of a Wall Street surge that had investors scrambling for technology stocks as if they were magic beans. Within months, the professional managers he'd hired to front the company had staged a successful coup, forcing him out with only his stock options to console him. Which he converted to something that at least had a half-life. Perfect.
        Now, he was wealthy, unencumbered and almost 19.
        Free to indulge his every whim, he scoured the web, looking for a greater challenge. If he'd been as wise as he was smart, he might have had the uneasy premonition that, like Alexander the Great before him, there were no new worlds to conquer. Boredom loomed.
        Until he began to hear of the flying girl in Houston. The stories had an element of legend about them, and were individually as believable as the latest reports from Roswell. They were not sensible, but they made sense. He suspected and then confirmed a pattern that wouldn't be obvious to the less driven. Intrigued, he devoted his full resources to his investigations.
        In the end, he knew what she was. He had to meet her.
        He left for Houston the next morning.

        Dinah had finally had enough of Robbins' intransigence and flew to Chicago to confront Wayans personally. She was slightly surprised that she was able to get an appointment so easily. She had gotten the very clear message from her New York office that Perry, Dyess, Eyelandt considered her persona non grata, and they received their marching orders from their master.
        Wayans Manor was the kind of house the Munsters would have lived in if they'd been zillionaires. It looked like a period piece from the Guilded Age before the turn of the last century, but it was so new it smelled of fresh construction. Age had been applied like makeup — all reproductions, from the carefully 'distressed' faux antiques out of bogus New England tourist traps, to the dark walnut paneling with its precisely manufactured weathering.
        It was laid out in grand scale, fit for massive entertainments with an ornate ballroom, banquet kitchens and plenty of discreet parking. It was meant to impress the hosts of visitors to its museum-like public areas. It was jingoistic in the ostentatious display of its overt Americana vulgaris ubertheme. It was a forceful statement of older, more solid values that were imagined of other, better times. It was completely phony.
        Dinah was escorted from the noisy, busy front to the private recesses deep in the mazelike bowels of the edifice by Wayans' aging personal butler, Albert. Their path led steadily downward through a series of passages that came to resemble tunnels. A final elevator ride brought them to a dark anteroom that must be far beneath the lavish grounds of the estate. Robbins was waiting for her.
        He looked too young to be anybody's boss, but compensated for his youthful appearance with intensity. He made snap decisions with authority and decisiveness, and did not suffer fools lightly. He had the reputation, carefully nurtured, of a butt-kicking wunderkind with infallible instincts. He was the power behind Wayans' would-be throne, the overseer, the bad cop.
        He wasted little time. "I am hurt, Ms. Prinze, that you should find my judgement to be so inadequate that you would bother Mr. Wayans with this. If you wish to seek other employment, I can personally arrange to terminate your contract."
        Dinah treated him to her best withering glare. "You know how I feel about this. There is nothing more to discuss between us on this subject. It's not just a personal squabble between you and me."
        "I don't appreciate your going over my head on this. I do not have the time to deal with your insubordination, and certainly Mr. Wayans…"
        "…Always has time for you, Dinah," came the deep, resonant voice of the tall, powerful black man who suddenly appeared in the doorway to the inner sanctum. He beckoned them in, warmly embracing Dinah. "I have heard so many good things about you. I'm so glad we can finally meet."
        In the art of politics, it is said that sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, the rest is easy.
        His office was astonishingly big. A massive desk dominated one end, with only a few chairs and minimal furniture to clutter the acreage. The lighting was so subdued as to be nearly absent, with a pool of soft light around the desk and everything else shrouded in shadows. Despite the cave-like atmosphere, the room bespoke calm power, as if it were the center of some universe of its own.
        Sinking deep into his high-backed dark leather chair, Wayans seemed almost to disappear into the gloom, reinforcing the effect his penetrating eyes would have on visitors. Robbins paced the carpet beside him while Dinah took the proffered seat on the other side of the desk.
        "I hear you are unhappy, Dinah," Wayans began, "I hope there's something I can do to keep you on our side. We need you."
        "You've seen my report," launched Robbins preemptively.
        Wayans dismissed him with a wave, "Of course. But I want to hear from our guest."
        Dinah said, "If you've seen the report, then you know what I have to say. There's not enough evidence to proceed and doing so would waste our resources and hurt a lot of little people. The only reason to pursue this any further is for publicity." She looked at him earnestly, "And I can't believe you'd do that."
        Robbins countered impatiently, "I've reviewed the same material you have, and it's obvious to me there's a solid basis for a strong case. I can't understand why you want to look the other way when there is a clear connection between the Chinese government and Iraqi chemical weapons under our very noses." He practically insinuated that opposition to his decision was treasonous.
        Dinah was undeterred. "Your conclusions are based on your own interpretations of what we know, and a lot of wishful thinking."
        "If we can apply enough pressure, we can make things happen."
        "Why are you so desperate to make something out of this that it's not?"
        "How can you say it's not?" Robbins countered hotly.
        "Because," Wayans weighed in thoughtfully, "Our capable beauty here has a rare gift, do you not?"
        Dinah squirmed under the flattering tone. "I am certain that I have uncovered the truth of this matter."
        "That's it, exactly." Wayans nodded, "And I have heard so many stories of your prowess in getting the truth. It's very important to you — to know the truth — isn't it?"
        "Of course."
        Robbins said contemptuously, "So your version of the 'truth' is more important than 'justice'?"
        "How can you have one without the other?"
        "Please," said Wayans diplomatically, "It doesn't look like we're going to resolve the issue like this."
        He paused a while, then looked directly at Dinah. "I think you know that this is an important part of our overall strategy. It will make a point that needs to be made and draw attention to the very real problems we face in reclaiming the values that made our nation the greatest in history.
        "I cannot emphasize to you enough your value to this whole endeavor. But I will not ask you to pursue this if you do not think it is right. We cannot reclaim our values by abusing them. And I will not assign a new team to pursue this any further."
        Robbins looked disbelievingly at Wayans and exclaimed, "What?"
        Wayans held up his hand. "Dinah must make this decision, and bear the consequences of it."
        "Well, if she walks out on this," spat Robbins, "then she walks out. Period."
        Dinah reached for her purse. "I brought my letter of resignation with me."
        Wayans shook his head. "That won't be necessary. There is still much work to be done."
        Robbins looked at Wayans almost incredulously. "You can't be serious."
        "She can be of great assistance right here. Dinah, I'd like you to move to Chicago. I want you to be my truth detector." He turned his head to look at Robbins, who stood with his mouth open, looking like he had been slapped.
        Dinah was confused. This was completely unexpected. "I don't know what to say. I mean, I can't. I have to stay in Houston. There's…" she trailed off, mind racing.
        "There's that boyfriend of yours," Robbins finished for her, practically hissing. "What's his name? Alex? Or is it Brainiac?"
        Dinah looked at him, flabbergasted. "That's my business."
        "Oh, really? Then I wonder why the KGB is so interested in a musician who just happens to be your boyfriend?"
        "KGB? What KGB? That's ridiculous. Where are you getting this crap? There's no more Soviet Union. That whole threat is over."
        "Like the Chinese Communists…?"
        "Just what the hell are you insinuating?"
        "Oh, nothing. Yet. But you've changed, and I don't like it. You can't be trusted anymore."
        "Robbins!" Wayans barked sharply, "That's enough!"
        Dinah stood up, flinging the resignation across the desk. Wayans shook his head sadly, picked it up and glanced at it briefly, then said, "I'm so sorry to have to accept this. Please, take your time closing out the Houston operation. Count on me for my highest recommendation."
        He reached in a drawer and pulled out an envelope, handing it to her. "You'll need this. Severance. Go ahead, it's in your contract."
        He was waiting for me to quit, Dinah thought numbly to herself. She felt manipulated somehow.
        She let herself out. Albert was waiting to escort back to the real world.
        When the door closed, the two men looked at each other.
        "How'd I do?" asked Robbins.
        "Splendidly, as usual."
        "You weren't so bad yourself."

        The small, lone figure sat on a curb in a little circle of relative brightness under a streetlight in the middle of nearly deserted downtown Houston. People only worked in the tall buildings surrounding her — nobody lived here. When the day was done, everybody went home to the suburbs.
        When it was late enough, life returned in the form of black-clad groups flitting across the sidewalks and intersections like dark spirits. Some of the Urban Animals — as many called themselves — sported emblems on their shirts, but there was little uniformity. There were long, dangling wallet chains on most, body-piercing jewelry on a few. Their common dress was 'tude, which was evident in abundance.
        A sizeable number of these nocturnal denizens converged swiftly on the solitary figure of a girl. She knew they were coming. She was expecting them, but tried not to show it, sitting forlornly at the edge of the sidewalk in a puddle of streetlight, feet in the gutter, head bowed in thought — a huddled figure in the hot, muggy, mosquito-laden night.
        Soon enough, she was surrounded. They halted just outside the circle of light, forming their own circle. She didn't look up. An air of anticipation was beginning to build. One of their group, who might be a leader — if such existed for them — swaggered up to the girl and stood over her, looking down at the top of her golden-tressed head.
        "Hey," he called to her.
        She looked up, not appearing to be startled. "What?"
        "I got somethin' for ya," he proclaimed. The others tittered appreciatively.
        "I'll bet you do," she replied.
        "You're gonna like it, too."
        "You think so?" It sounded like a challenge.
        He sneered, "I know so."
        There was an unzipping sound. She looked around at the others. They were closing in, not wanting to miss anything. She didn't appear to be very concerned. Then she turned back to see just what it was he had for her.
        Her eyes widened in sudden appreciation. "Oh my goodness! It's huge…"
        One of the onlookers spoke up, "No shit." The others laughed their agreement.
        He smiled ferally, thrusting his offering in her face. "And it's all for you."
        "Oh, yes," she gasped.
        "You want it?"
        "I want it. I want it all." She reached out to take it with both hands. She could barely handle it. It was so hot. And so thick.
        "Go ahead, put it in your mouth," he commanded.
        She attacked it with relish, stuffing as much of it past her wide-open lips as she could. The gallery oohed their approval.
        As it started to slide down her throat, she closed her eyes, lost in rapture.
        "Whattaya say?" he demanded.
        "Iffle goosh margleb," she sputtered, her mouth full to capacity.
        "Now — finish it."
        Every eye was on her as she came to a swift completion, obviously disappointed that there wasn't even more. She used her fingers to scrape up every last bit from her chin, not wanting to miss the slightest trace.
        Finally, she opened her eyes and sighed, "That was soooo good…"
        "The best you ever had?"
        "The best," she agreed. "Only…"
        "Only what?" he wanted to know.
        She hesitated a second, then said, "It could have been better."
        The small crowd's collective eyebrows shot up. Better…?
        "Better…?" he asked. "How could it be any better?"
        "Well…" she replied, "Anchovies".
        "Oh, man — I can't believe they left out the anchovies. I told them 'all the way'. I oughta go get my money back."
        "That's OK. It'll just be that much better next time. Really, even without the anchovies, it was awesome. Thanks!"
        "Well, I'm glad you liked it. I just can't believe you could eat the whole thing that fast. Nobody can eat a Supersize by themselves, I don't care how big they are. Don't they feed you at home?"
        The legend of Sara's appetite remained unchallenged among the Urban Animals. How such a thin little girl could pack so much food away was a constant source of amazement to her friends. Every week brought a different attempt by someone to find something she couldn't handle, to no avail. Defeated, he bent over to pick up the insulated pizza carrier, carefully zipping it closed before strapping it to his bicycle's book carrier.
        Entertainment over — and bets settled — the group began its midsummer night's ritual, gliding through the complex landscape of ramps, curbs, steps, handrails, loading docks, walls, architectural excesses, construction debris, sleeping winos, benches, barriers, alleys, grand entrances, parking garages, monumental art, and all the myriad ways they could find to break every bone in their young bodies, hurtling recklessly at every challenge on skates, inlines, boards and bikes. It was X-treme sport, and they wore their injuries with pride.
        Sara was, of course, rather good at it, but didn't flaunt her abilities too much, though occasionally showing off in a sly way that the others couldn't be sure was actually impossible. She was there for the sense of casual belonging, the same as the rest of them. She was just slightly the odd duck, but was welcomed nevertheless.
        Her stunning appearance at first drew more than her share of attention, but when one snotnosed buck grew a tad too obnoxious, he found himself almost instantly deposited in a very high, terrifyingly precarious place. It took firemen and city workers more than four hours to retrieve him — soiled shorts and all — and rumor had it that he had thereafter hung up his skates for good. Nobody admitted to knowing exactly what happened, but nobody gave her any reason to do such a thing again, either.
        Sometimes they would encounter other, larger groups, mostly 30-ish professional types who took to the streets as a social expression, a healthy alternative to the bar scene for meeting other singles. Riff-raff (mostly understood to mean workers and peasants) were ignored until they went away, along with the terminally uncoordinated, geeks, psychotic mass murderers, the brain dead, Bible bangers, ersatz rednecks, pseudo intellectuals, politicians and uniformed trekkies.
        Many groups had regular crawls, sometimes numbering in the hundreds and extending for marathon distances, with hired deputies guarding major intersections to manage the river of sweating humanity and keep them separated from the traffic. Websites and e-mails announced times and places to meet, but there were no formal organizations with dues and officers and awards banquets. The cops tolerated the amiable disorderliness of it all ever since rousting a bunch of skating lawyers a few years ago and getting hammered in court and in the court of public opinion. This was Texas, after all.

        This night, there was a clumsy newbie, a sincere dork with close-cropped red hair and freckles. He had no style, no chops and no hope, and was barely able to keep up, let alone show any dazzle. Such as he appeared from time to time, collected their quota of skate rash and faded away unremembered. This one shadowed them valiantly but ineptly until the group packed it up halfway 'till morning.
        Most caught rides from parental-unit skaters, others had wheels. Sara saw them off from her street corner until they had all gone — she had her own means of transportation. The new guy hung around, massaging his courage, and finally approached her as the last of the pack faded away. Sara resolved to be polite.
        He was nervous, obviously, but seemed determined. "Hi."
        "Hi," she answered, hoping he wasn't going to be as stupid as he looked. She could always take off while he was blinking.
        "I'm Jimmie Oldsen."
        "Sara Corel." Last time she did that, she got a little carried away and the resulting sonic boom was reported the next day as, 'Freak Tornado Lashes Downtown, Dozens of Hi-Rise Windows Blown Out.'
        "I knew I'd find you here tonight."
        "Really." Uh-oh. She wondered how long it would take the city to get this guy off the top of the One Shell Plaza radio mast.
        "You're not being too discreet."
        "Discreet?" About what? What was he getting at?
        "I found out about you on the 'Net. There's a lot of stuff, some of it pretty weird. I had to meet you, so I flew in yesterday from San Jose."
        "To meet me?" She didn't know whether to be flattered or annoyed.
        "You can fly." It was a statement, not a question. He knew.
        "If you say so," she said guardedly. Oh well, bound to happen sooner or later.
        "You're the one. I'm sure of it."
        "OK," she shrugged. What did he want? An autograph?
        "What's it like? Flying, I mean."
        He came all the way out here to ask that? "Well," she thought for a moment, "It's kinda like skating. Only higher."
        "How do you do it?"
        "I just flap my arms really fast."
        "No, really. Is it a machine or something? Were you born that way? I saw what you did, back at the Four Seasons garage. Most people can't skateboard up a ramp."
        "Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting."
        "And there's other stuff. Did you really pick up a cement truck?"
        "Only once. They break easily. I shoulda used both hands."
        He didn't laugh. "How much change do I have in my pocket?"
        "Two dollars and seventy-four cents," she replied without thinking about it.
        He dug it out and counted it. "I knew it," he confirmed. "What's the one-million, two-hundred-forty-one-thousand, nine-hundred-eleventh digit after the decimal point in pi? And the next ten digits that come after it?"
        She told him. It had taken days to get that number sequence, but he wanted to confirm his theory about her. That would pretty much do it.
        Sara was mildly surprised that she wasn't bored or offended or something. He was so enthusiastic it was infectious.
        "You hungry?" he asked.
        "I could always do with a bite or two."
        "I saw. Must be nice not to have to count calories."
        "It's a gift."
        "I bought a motorcycle, the one across the street. Where's the best place to grab something this time of night? So we can talk, if that's OK. I'll get you anything you want. As much as you want."
        "For real? You don't know what you're saying. I hope you're rich."
        "I am," he said, matter-of-factly.
        "House of Pies, on Kirby."
        "Wanna tell me how to get there, or ride with me?"
        "I don't know. Motorcycles are pretty dangerous."
        "You can wear my helmet." Wait a minute… "Uh, you don't need a helmet, do you…?"
        She laughed. "I don't think so. You keep the helmet. Let's go — I'm hungry!"
        They talked. She ate. A lot. She'd met Alex there a few times after gigs, when it was full of musicians and 'artistic types' from gay Montrose. It was heaven on earth, but she'd always been restrained before. This time, she took Jimmie up on his offer.
        She had multiple servings of each sweet pie, cake, confection, tort, ice cream, bun and pastry they had. She had omelets, patty melts, chops, hashed browns, fries, salads, chicken, steak, grits, pancakes, bacon, sausage, meat loaf, pasta, veggies and fruits. It was a monumental accomplishment that drew disbelieving stares from every pretty boy and queen in the joint. Only the jazzers ignored her.
        He had to do most of the talking, since she was busy, but he told her everything he'd learned and she confirmed most of what he suspected. She was as fascinated with his story as he was about hers. Morning broke, and the restaurant finally refused to serve her any more out of sheer exhaustion and concern for having anything left to serve their regular customers. Nobody else would leave until she was finished so as to settle bets on whether or not she would suddenly explode.
        He took her home and met Alex, Dinah and Mrs. J at their breakfast in the 'A' unit. Sara helped herself to a stack of hot waffles while Jimmie bubblingly introduced himself and told them what he knew. They were resigned to finally confront the inevitable, but Jimmie had more in mind.
        "No offense, Sara, but, sir, I know that she's some kind of alien supercomputer. I know about the Russian dudes teaching her and all that, and, yeah, everyone calls you Brainiac. But, well, I know computers. Maybe as good as anyone anywhere. At least on Earth, I mean. But a lot more than anyone here, even Sara.
        "You haven't even come close to realizing what she can do. It's way more than you old guys — no offense — can handle. But I can.
        "I want to be on the team. You let me — oh, how can I say this? — tinker around with her and I bet I can come up with all sorts of stuff that you wouldn't think of. Not even her, 'cause she's not even into computers like I am. It won't cost you anything…"
        "He's rich," Sara interjected.
        "…And I won't get in the way. Besides, it's either me or NASA. Who knows what they'll come up with. Me, I'm with you. And Sara and me — we're buddies. Right?"
        He looked at her, trying not to look like he was pleading.
        "Right," she said. She liked him.
        Alex looked at the others, but they deferred to him. He sighed.
        "How can I refuse an offer like that?"


Chapter Twelve: Graduation


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© Patrick Hill, 2000