Read Brain Storm Online

Authors: Richard Dooling

Tags: #Suspense

Brain Storm (4 page)

“Good,” she said.

Happy and affectionate she was, and so was he. After his blood cooled and his head cleared, he thought about reopening the conversation on the strength of his
probably
, as in: I’ll
probably
take Arthur’s advice. And could an argument be made that taking Arthur’s advice meant
listening
to Arthur’s advice, and was that semantically different than
following
Arthur’s advice? Instead, he watched her roll onto her back and drift off, while he retrieved his subnotebook and tried to salvage his memo from his boss’s depredations. In a spasm of defiance, he renamed the memo ARTHUR.BAK, split the screen, and retrieved his
own version, then spliced in just enough Arthurisms to protect himself in case anybody ever reviewed the file.

She was onto something, calling his laptop a second penis. Like cars, computers were perfect vehicles for displaced male sexual impulses. But her phallic imagery was all wrong. Computers are women, not penises. Total infatuation with the love-object, fetishistic behaviors, how-to manuals. Love, followed by the labor and headache of system maintenance: configuring drivers, updating software, applying corrective service diskettes and fixpacks. He diddled the nib of the little cherry-colored TrackPoint device embedded in the middle of the tactile keys. Just the right size and shape … Vile, lewd, carnal.

She moaned softly from somewhere far away in the land of nod. He switched off the notebook and studied her sheet-draped swells and curves. When she breathed, her chest bloomed under the silk teddy, and he vividly recalled just why he had given up his dream of being a criminal lawyer and civil rights warrior. Blame it on her breasts. Here he was lounging next to a beautiful woman in a nice house in Ladue, Missouri. He could trot downstairs and fetch another cold beer from the refrigerator, or watch a sporting event on a big-screen TV. He had two cars in the garage and a nice high-end subnotebook. And where was James F. Whitlow sleeping tonight? Less than ten years ago, they had attended the same high school, read the same books, had the same Latin teacher. Now Whitlow was sleeping in a cage of concrete and steel. No possessions, except maybe a toothbrush and a prison-issue Bible. No women. No children. Only criminals and stone-hearted guards.

Like many lawyers, Watson originally went to law school because he had been unsettled by the prospect of graduation from college. If, as Clausewitz observed, war is a continuation of politics by other means, then perhaps, for young Watson, law school was a continuation of college by other means. Good Catholics have vocations, not jobs. Teachers, parents, priests, nuns—they all had solemnly admonished Watson and his brothers and sisters to listen in their heart of hearts for a tiny whispering voice, which would summon them to their calling in life, the way he supposed his father had been called to serve others as a psychologist, helping people solve their problems and tame their demons. But Watson had realized, as he stood on the steps of Ignatius University with his undergraduate diploma in his hand, the tassel depending from his square cap and swinging in the periphery, that he had no calling. He
had just completed eight years of quality education administered by Jesuits and was still picking up nothing in the way of a voice summoning him anywhere but to Ladies Night at the nearest Happy Hour.

As for career interests, the only proclivity he’d noticed in his undergraduate studies was a pronounced fascination with evil characters, usually encountered in the pages of literature. Thus his major: World Lit. It probably started back in grade school with the story of Satan’s fall. As the nuns told the tale, Lucifer had been at the head of the elite class of archangels. But then the star pupil, the brightest light among the cherubim and seraphim, had turned on his Maker. Rebelled, bit the hand that had made him, fell from grace, and chose to live in darkness and damnation rather than heel and serve at the foot of his master. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Even as a little boy, Watson wanted to know more. Not about God, who seemed monolithic and as unapproachable as a beam of eternal light, but about this headstrong fallen rebel angel who had willfully condemned himself to the darkness visible. By the time he found the story again in Milton’s
Paradise Lost
, Watson had seen the same theme tricked out in hundreds of variations and derivations. If literature is an exercise in empathy, Watson had so far affiliated himself with the unsavory scions of Satan who inhabited the fringes of human endeavor in the novels he had read. It’s possible to develop a certain affection for the romantic strains of criminal psyches when one encounters them primarily in print. Raskolnikov from
Crime and Punishment
, Julien Sorel from
The Red and the Black
, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Richard III—fascinating rogues, one and all. What’s it like to be a ruthless criminal? Somebody once asked Albert Einstein what it was like to be a genius, and he said, “What does a fish know about the water in which it swims every day?” Literature offered an easy fix for Watson’s curiosity about sin and sinners, with none of the risks involved in actually committing crimes or consorting with criminals.

How noble, if he could say that a love of imaginary criminals had prompted him to attend law school. Instead, having caved in to the fear of beginning adult life without a vocation, he consoled himself with the notion that if law was to be his rather haphazard, default destiny, then he would not become just another nameless, greedy, suburb-living, big-firm lawyer. He would be Clarence Darrow, lawyer for rebels and criminals. He would be a courtroom hero with a gifted, extreme sensibility,
driven by ideals instead of by cash, placing himself and his literary sensibility in the service of defending monsters from the society that had created them. In his legal memos and oral arguments, he would quote Terence, the Roman slave and self-made man of letters,
“Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto”
—“I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.” He would be the kind of advocate who could wind up a passionate closing argument by leaning on the bar of the jury box and delivering a tender rendition of Portia’s speech to Shylock from
The Merchant of Venice.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven …”

He imagined the jury reaching for their hankies by the time he closed.

Instead of following in old Clarence’s footsteps, Watson met Sandra. He fell in love with her first, even before he had taken off her clothes, but when he undid the three clasps over her backbone for the first time, then lifted the lacy cups and planted his head between them, her breasts had inspired the biological equivalent of a religious experience. There was no stopping him, or her. They went at each other every which way, every day, morning, night, lunchtime, under the table on the kitchen floor, in the parking garage on the hood of her car, on the stone benches in Forest Park.

Sandra’s breasts were perfectly formed, like the breasts adorning the statues of Greek goddesses:
Nike
, from the balustrade of the Temple of Athena; the
Dying Niobid;
or Praxiteles’
Aphrodite of Cnidus.
Sandra’s breasts, worthy of serving for all eternity as archetypes, made him believe in the concept of Plato’s Forms.

Once he had met her, law school, which had never been a passion, was minimized, idling like a desktop utility in the background under other, more important programs.
Now this
, he could recall thinking at the time,
must be what life is all about.

Contrary to the way they behaved, time did not stand still. And barring some violent dislocation of the natural order, a law student will become a lawyer, as surely as a fetus left unmolested usually becomes a human being. The imagery might seem extreme, except that he and Sandra had some misgivings about the more reliable methods of birth control. The misgivings they should have had about premarital sex seemed unimportant, because they assumed—knew!—they would marry. Sooner than they had planned, as it had turned out, when a certain reproductive miscalculation produced what Catholics refer to as a person.

The proper procedure was to say nothing about the new cellular person,
get married immediately, and pretend that little Sheila, who appeared seven and a half months later, during his third year of law school, was born premature, even though she weighed ten pounds.

And, later on in law school, after clerking between first and second year with Myrna Schweich, a very good solo practitioner specializing in criminal law, he’d had to decide where to work between second and third year, the year most law students intern for the job they expect to have upon graduation. He had had offers to choose from, most of which were from large firms for good money. Or, as he had explained to Sandra, who was big with Sheila at the time, he could go work with Myrna for about half the money but get almost immediate trial experience and hands-on criminal lawyering, with an eye toward someday going into practice for himself.

Sandra had some stark alternatives for him. She came from a family where the men—heirs and shareholders of the closely held R. J. Connally & Sons Technology Investment Group—made lots of money, while the women ran the households and reared the children. But this was the beginning of the twenty-first century. She was willing to be flexible. With a kid on the way, it seemed to her they had two options. “Either I stay home,” she had said, “with the baby, while you go out and make a lot of money. Or you can stay home, and I’ll go out and make a lot of money. Either way, strangers will not be raising our children.” The plural was a given. Having a family with one kid would be like having a rosary with one bead, or a place setting with only a salad fork. Not done among Catholics, unless God so willed it. Sandra had two brothers and two sisters; Watson had two brothers and three sisters.

Sandra’s father, the head of R. J. Connally & Sons, put it a different way. Watson asked R.J. for his daughter’s hand in a cigar-and-brandy ceremony that could have happened three hundred years earlier. Cigars had come back in fashion and so had brandy—they were missing only the English drawing room. Instead, R.J., a trim but balding fifty-two-year-old ski-hound who did everything in moderation (except make money and ski), was showing off his big-screen, high-definition, flat-panel plasma monitor and its remote-control pointing device. He had a football game going in a square at lower right, the Tokyo bond markets running in real time at lower left, the Silicon Investor Web site, www.briefing.com, and
The Wall Street Journal
Interactive all running somewhere in the middle in cascading tiles, Microsoft NBC news coming in at upper right, and what he called his “personal small-cap tech
portfolio” at upper left, featuring a highlighted bottom line of, ahem, $810,000.

Watson tried and failed to work up the nerve to pop the big question, namely: “What’s the personal
large
-cap tech portfolio look like?” So, instead, he tried working up the nerve to ask for Sandra’s hand. R.J. clicked and dragged frames around the four-foot-square plasma screen, bragging about how he’d bought two thousand shares of Cisco Systems before anybody else ever heard of it, nervously filling every space of silence with more tech talk. He seemed to sense what Watson was getting ready to ask him, or maybe the women in the family had already let slip why Joe and Sandra were in such a rush to get married. Eventually, Watson asked him. And R.J. put on a solemn look and gazed into the middle distance, as if peering into his daughter’s future; then he delivered the first rendition of a speech Watson would hear many times: “The Working Fool and Real Money” speech.

In the Connally household, this speech inspired the same reverence and gravitas that the entire nation had probably felt for William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech or FDR’s “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” speech. As R.J. saw the world, a young man had to go out and make his first half million in seed money on his own by being a working fool, doing something arduous and not very lucrative: law, accounting, medicine, banking, a profession, or a small business. But only working fools labored in these professions for life. Nothing wrong with being a working fool (he was always careful to point this out, especially when the room was full of them); it could even be a compliment, as when he would remark that someone was a “working fool of a surgeon” or a “working fool of a lawyer.” This meant that the person excelled at their profession and indeed had even accumulated skills that could be very usefully hired on occasion. But it went without saying that these people suffered from a congenital lack of market savvy and investment wisdom, because they never took their seed money and aggressively invested it to make what R.J. called Real Money.

A guy with any brains ultimately couldn’t help seeing that the Real Money was in the stock market. And that’s where you put your seed money—the money you had earned the hard way in your raw youth as a working fool. Only then was it possible to log on before going on vacation, pull up your personal small-cap tech portfolio, and check it at, let’s say, $750,000. OK, then you go on vacation for two weeks to one of those time-share condos down in the Gulf Shores (write it off, because
you are exploring other time-sharing investment opportunities down there). You come back home, pull up your small-cap tech portfolio, and see that it is now at $810,000, for a net of $60,000 earned while on vacation.

That was Real Money and the market at work. And Watson (so far utterly seedless) could see that he would be in for some serious flacking around the Sunday-evening dinner table out at the Connally’s in Ladue if he didn’t make big seed money and apprehend the wisdom of the stock market before age forty Before his second year of law school was over, he had sworn allegiance to his future wife. He put in for the internship at Stern, Pale & Covin, so they could buy a nice house, settle down, and raise more little interlopers, who competed with Watson for access to Sandra’s breasts. And soon, Clarence Darrow had become an all-purpose, computerized, legal-research working fool on a big-firm salary. It wasn’t altruistic or socially redeeming labor, it wasn’t satisfying or particularly difficult, but it paid well and was therefore presumptively respectable. And if he and Sandra ever stopped spending, why maybe seed money would appear.

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