Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chapter Nine

“Steve, are you okay? Why did you call me so late?” Valerie said as she slid into the booth.

“I’m not okay” Steve said, not making eye contact as he looked down into his coffee. “And keep your voice down. People can hear us.”

“What people?”

“People. People have been watching us lately, and I don’t want them to hear us.”

“Steve, you are just being paranoid! Why would people be watching you?”

“Us. I said people are watching us. You too.”

“Who? This guy next to us? Why would he be watching …Hey! Don’t I know you? Aren’t you that comedian on stage tonight?” Valerie was staring over Steve’s show right at Tucker now, disoriented as to why he would be here at 2am with Steve.

Shoot. Tucker had recognized Miss Kappa from the show when she walked in, and also then Steve when she sat down in the booth with him. But, he was hoping not to be recognized in return. He was respondint to a text from Jenna asking him how his last show had gone. So far it was an amicable breakup and they still talked from time to time, checking in on each other’s life. He was two-thumbing her back a reply about she was not his only heckler when he was interrupted with Valerie’s question. Grudgingly he looked up and decided it was unavoidable that he have company with his eggs.

“Hi you two”, Tucker offered. “I thought I recognized you also. Welcome to my after-show office.”

“Are you here with Steve? Are you part of what’s going on?”

“I’m not here with Steve. But what is going on, now that you ask, and why are you here with Steve? I thought you were with Beta.”

“Darren – Beta, if you will – is back at the frat house passed out. Jerk. I was on a date with him, but I am not ‘with’ him in any sense thank you very much. Steve here set us up.”

“Really. I didn’t put that together at all from the stage that you two know each other. How do you two know each other?”

“We work together at the lab on campus”, Valerie said. She looked at Steve to check if he had calmed down any. “That’s where what’ is going on is going on.”

“Can I join you two? Would you mind? I can’t sleep and don’t really have anyone here in town to talk to.”

With Valerie’s nod in the affirmative, Tucker scooped up his plate of eggs and glass of Orange Juice and joined them in their booth. Steve was on the aisle side of his seat and sprawled out, so Tucker slid in next to Valerie on the opposite side. It did not escape his notice, given his newly single status, that Valerie was an attractive young woman. Sure, she was considerably younger than he was but that was not a deal breaker. Plus, she was fresh off of a disappointing date with Beta and maybe he would have a shot at asking her out. He would like to start dating when he came back to town after the film festival in Chicago, and his senses were on high alert to the possiblilities.

But, Tucker was also an observational comic, and his senses told him that there was an interesting story here to observe. “So, what’s up with you two?”, he asked Valerie.

 Tucker reached down to his belt as he settled into the booth and unclipped the TENS device he was wearing. He could feel the pads on his back electrify as he turned up the amperage a bit. A tingle. A jolt actually, and he dialed it back a little. That should work for a while. He wouldn’t wear it to bed tonight, at least he didn’t typically. He just need some relief for the next hour or so. As he did every night since he had fallen off of that stage in the dark at the Trevecca Nazarene University. Ouch. 

Tucker looked up from the dials and saw that both Steve and Valerie had suddenly stopped talking and were staring at him. Staring at the TENS unit in his hands, actually.

“What? Have you seen a TENS unit before?”

Steve and Valerie looked at each other. Steve shook his head in a “no” motion imperceptibly. Valerie looked away and ignored him.

“We have actually. A TENS unit?”, Valerie asked. Her countenance had changed, Tucker noticed. It was no longer a look of concern for Steve. It was more of an inquisitive face now as she looked at Tucker to her side.

“Well, that’s what the box that it came in called it. I had to look it up in the manual to see what that means. It’s an acronym for “Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator”. Isn’t that a fine bit of technological gibberish. But, hey, when you need your pain managed technology is a wonderful thing.”

Valerie and Steve locked eyes again. Steve was growing perceptibly agitated and shaking his head side to side in almost a tic fashion.

Valerie looked back at Tucker. “Does it do that for you? Manage your pain?”

“Valerie!”. Steve’s eyes were pleading with her to stop there.

“Steve, I’m just asking questions. That’s what we do. We are researchers. I’m just asking questions. For research. Leave me alone.”

Tucker was fascinated with what he was observing between Steve and Valerie. It was a little concerning to be sitting in an IHOP at 2 am-ish with two people he didn’t know having this conversation, given that it was noticeably agitating one of the two. But, he was more fascinated with Valerie wanting to talk to him and he was certainly willing to answer her question.

“You two work together you said. Research is it? What kind of research?”

“Biomedical research. Pain, mostly.”

“Really? Do you solve it or inflict it?” Always the comedian.

“You would be surprised what will be possible some day in the field of pain. Dr. Evans is a visionary.”

“Dr. Evans?”

“Dr. Maricela Evans. We assist her, as grad students. She’s a visionary.”

“You said that. I’d love to meet her, I’m sure.”

“Does it work for you?”

“What, the TENS unit? Yeah, I guess it does. For a while anyway. It’s not a cure, just temporary relief – and not total relief at that. Do you know how it works?”

“Steve does.” Valerie said, checking back on him with her eyes. “He’s the technical geek. An Electrical Engineering major as an undergrad actually. We drafted him over to Biomedical because we needed someone who knows how the technology works. I am biomed myself. I conduct pain studies.”

“Valerie, I’m telling you that they’re watching us. Keep your voice down.” Steve was not happy with the direction of the conversation, and was looking like he might leave.

“What would you say your pain level is right now, on a scale of one to ten?” Valerie asked Tucker as she took his wrist and felt for his pulse. That was more touch from an attractive lady than Tucker had had since his breakup with Jenna. She had his full attention.

“Hmm, that’s what they asked me when I went in to get this unit. How am I supposed to know?”

“It’s just a number. Pick a number. From one to ten please.”

“Yeah, like he would know”, Steve offered.

Tucker thought that odd, but ignored Steve and looked back at Valerie. “You sound like a doctor already. I have no doubt that you’ll graduate and get there.”

“Thanks. But, you’re being stubborn, Tucker. Just give me a number.”

“Fine. Well, I was about a nine when I got offstage. I went down to a four when I put this on in my apartment. I’m back up to a seven because Steve here is getting me a little on edge. I hope to go back down to a four with this increased juice.”

“That’s pretty perceptive of you. And complex.” Valerie smiled at him, pleased. Tucker smiled back, less aware of Steve in the booth with them now.  “Most people just say seven. You must have been using this for a while. Did you have an injury?”

“I did”. Steve winced involuntarily at the memory. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. Stages look brightly lit, but they are dark and dangerous at the edges. I got too engaged with a heckler and walked carelessly close to the edge. I was holding my Eddie the Purple Monkey puppet – you remember Eddie, right? I fell on some chairs that were up against the stage.”

“I can see how that would hurt. Did you go to a doctor?”

“A doctor – well, a physician’s assistant. And a massage therapist. Then I even went to a chiropractor for the first time in my life, which is where I got this handy electrical gizmo to strap myself into. I got pretzled up a few times too, ‘adjustments’ they call them. It didn’t help me much.”

Valerie turned around in the booth sideways to see Tucker better. “Tucker, how confident of you in the numbers that you gave me. How confident are people really when they answer that pain question?”

“Well, it’s just a num..”

“And how much stock should the doctor put in that number?”

“Hmmm. That’s a mighty deep question you are asking me here at 2am in an IHOP doc.’

“I’m not a doctor, Tucker, I’m a grad student. Doing research. Those are questions that I am asking myself as we do our project. Dr. Evans’s project, actually.”

Rashida Maddox walked by and asked if any of them wanted a refill. She noticed that all three of them were sharing a booth now, and resigned herself to getting just one tip and not two from these booths. Valerie and Tucker got refills. Steve continued to nurse his drink.

“Valerie. You’re making me nervous.” Steve said. “Can we talk about something else? Mr. Elliot is a comedian, and I don’t think he is interested in our little research project.”

“Actually I am a bit of a tech guy too, with a background in engineering. I am interested indeed. Valerie, ask me your question again.”

“How confident are you with your number?”

“Okay. Okay. I see where you are going with this.”

“Yes? Where?”

“Well, what if my number was not accurate? What if what I thought was a lot of pain really was not.”

“Go on.”

“What if I was a big wuss, and if what I thought was a lot of pain – a ten let’s say – really wasn’t in relation to what another person might call it.”

“Exactly”, Valerie agreed.

Tucker reached around and rubbed his back muscles a bit as he thought. “You know, I think I am pretty in touch with what pain level I am at. I have a life long databank of pain experience to judge it against.”

“True. But that databank is internal to your experience.”

“So, you are saying that what I think that I am feeling may not be rated at a different level by someone else?”

Valerie slapped Tucker playfully on the arm. “You catch on quick! We could use you on our project.”

“Sorry, I’m not a grad student. Although, I wouldn’t mind working with you.”

“That’s sweet. I’m not sure Steve here feels the same way. He would warn you off.”

“So this is what my mother used to tell me when I was a kid. She would say ‘If men could experience childbirth they would know what real pain is!’ I thought she was just talking about me being a pain.”

“It’s not just your mother’s saying. I’ve said that myself to guys about cramps. You guys are such babies at times.”

“Okay. We probably deserve that, I guess.” Tucker was thoroughly enjoying this conversation, and was thinking how much better it was than what he and Courtney, Rob, and Venkat had talked about for the last few months out on the tour. This was the kind of stuff that got his brain engaged and his blood flowing. It even made him forget about his back pain while they were talking. “But, don’t we all feel the same thing?”

“Do we?”

“Okay”, Tucker said. “You are still in researcher mode I see. Asking questions you already have studied. We all have the same biology, don’t we? Wouldn’t we feel things the same way.”

“Well, we think we do. I have female physiology though, and you have male physiology, of course.”

“I have noticed.”

“Really? Stop it.”

“So, is it an illusion that we all feel the same things as other people do? Are we overrating empathy?”

“To a degree, maybe.”

Tucker had never thought about this before, and wanted to tug on the string a little more.

“Could it work the other way too? What if I had a high threshold for pain? What if I was stronger than I thought and not a wuss? What if pain that I was minimizing was actually serious pain that indicated that I had an injury that needed to be looked at?”

“Tucker, you are picking up on this faster than I thought you would. Keep going. What does a threshold of pain really mean anyway?

“That’s a good question. I can either take it or I can’t. But take what? Maybe it’s not a fixed amount of pain that everyone would recognize. Maybe it’s a sliding scale. Is that what your project is about?”

“Partly, Tucker. You are almost there. Keep going. Why would that matter?”

“Okay, I see. Why would that matter? Let me think about it a minute.” Tucker’s half-eaten eggs had gotten cold, he saw. He had lost interest in them. He thought about asking for them to get warmed up, but he saw that Rashida was all the way across the IHOP dining room, engrossed in what looked like a textbook. He wasn’t that hungry this time in the dawning early morning any way.

“It’s first”, Tucker muttered into his cold eggs.

“I’m sorry”, Valerie said. She knew he was close to where she had been for months. “What is first?”

“It’s the first question that they ask you at the doctor or at the emergency room. It’s what they base their triage on for the patients that they are seeing. I imagine that the doctor wants to know the right number each time in order to get the triage right.”


“Okay, I’m playing catch-up with you Valerie. But I get the gist of it. Your project is for the doctors.”

“That was the insight that Maricela had. Dr. Evans. She has asked many patients that question during the years she was in private practice. She noticed over the years that the answer to the number question did not always match what she should have gotten given the eventual diagnosis.”

“So”, Tucker asked, “have you found it yet?”

“Found what?”

“A better way to know what someone’s pain level is without asking them to tell you?”

“Well, aren’t you a smart one. Yes, that’s our research project with Dr. Evans.”

“And? Have you found a method?”

“Not exactly a method.”

“No? What then?”

“ A device. That’s where Steve comes in, actually.”

“Valerie! Stop it, please! I’m leaving.”

Tucker saw Steve reached in his pocket and then threw a $10 on the table for Rashida, and start to get out of the booth. He saw some motion in his peripheral vision also as the two Asian men in military surplus clothing got quickly out of their booth and strode toward their trio.
“Crap!”, Steve yelled. As he grabbed his bicep Tucker saw that it was torn. He also saw what looked like three gashed lines that were bleeding through the tear. Steve stood and ran out of the IHOP doors behind the fleeing Asians.

Valerie grabbed her handbag and pushed up against Tucker. “Let me out, I better go after him.”

“Did you see that he was bleeding?”

“I did. I’ve got my car here. I’ll get him and take him by the infirmary on campus. I know the doctors on duty there tonight.” With that, Tucker let Valerie out of the booth and she was out of the doors of the IHOP behind Steve.

What was that commotion all about, Tucker thought? Why was Steve suddenly bleeding? And had he seen what he thought he had seen in that one guy’s hand. It was dark, and partially hidden, but if Tucker wasn’t mistaken it sure looked like that gun that they had used on him back in basic training for vaccinations  – the kind that ripped a gash if you moved your arm while they were shooting the vaccine in. Did they still even use those? Why would he have one of those? He must be tired – he was certainly seeing things. It was definitely time to head back to his apartment to catch a nap before heading for Chicago and the film festival.

Tucker turned his TENS device off and waved Rashida over to get their checks. He left Steve’s $10 on the table for Rashida and went to the front counter to pay. He didn’t mind picking up their check too. It was worth it to have that stimulating conversation with Valerie, even though it ended oddly.” What was that about?”, he said as he walked out into the dawn.

As Tucker headed out on foot down Green Street back to his apartment, it occurred to him that Steve would likely know the answer to the question that they would surely ask him at the infirmary: “What is your pain level on a scale of one to ten?”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chapter Eight

Jiao Luo watched Martin Kelo with growing astonishment as their conversation stretched past the second hour into the early morning. How was he still this awake given his activities of the long business day? She herself was feeling some of the tiring effects of international travel from Bejing, but had been able to rest well in the first class cabin and could continue for a while longer. She was starting to think though of the comfortable bed that awaited her in her hotel room.

“Thank you for that excellent report on our business in the Asian markets, Jiao”, Martin offered as he poured his hundredth cup of coffee for the day.

“It is my pleasure. It has been a very good year in my region.”

“I’m sure that it has. Business seems to be resuming, at least in the global mining markets that I am focused on.”

As Martin launched excitedly into a litany of the recovery of the minerals and mining industries that he was heavily invested in, Jiao’s mind wandered to thoughts of her travels in the last week in her home country of China. She marveled at the change that she had witnessed in her ancient land in the last twenty years of her life. Changes that allowed her to be sitting here tonight as an equal with one of the major industrialists of the Western world.

Jiao smiled inwardly as she thought about visiting with her mother in her comfortable apartment in the new city of Lou Yang. What a change that area had undergone since the period long ago when it was a capital of China for 800 years or so. The new city was booming with construction, the industry that her father had succeeded in and had given her opportunity. She had grown up in the old city in an impoverished section just off of the main street behind a hotel that served western businessmen. She had seen them walking on the street after hours, standing out among the crowd. What did they do, she wondered, to have so much?

Her father had earned that lifestyle for her, with a long slow climb through the business of construction, with the new opportunities that a loosening business climate afforded. He cultivated, and well compensated, the right members of the local Party and grew his company to thousands of employees manning the growing number of cranes building the high rise buildings across China. First in the new city across the river in Lou Yang, with the sports stadiums and the neon casinos. Eventually in Bejing, where he was called on to assist in the building boom for the Olympics.

The money from her father’s growing construction business paid for her education at one of the finest universities in China, where she studied international finance.  That degree legitimized a place on her father’s leadership team even a young woman, and helped her assume the leadership of the company when her father passed away suddenly last year. Her mother had fought for her to take the helm, against the wishes of the men who had served her father for years. She was motivated to make her mother proud of her and to expand her father’s legacy. And she chose to expand it westward, internationally.

“I want to thank you again, Jiao, for your investment in our enterprises”, Martin was saying. “The cash infusion has been instrumental for our growth in the technology sectors in this economy. Venture capital on our end is still a little tight.”

“You are welcome, Martin. But it is not a matter of generosity. We expect a considerable return on our investments in Martin Kelo Enterprises.”

“Well, nothing is guaranteed of course. We expect to take your cash infusion and turn it into profit for both of us.”

“I will, of course, be watching to ensure that we do. I see opportunities within the organization that have potential for substantial growth and profit. Opportunities in the financial markets and in the technology sectors, especially with your divisions here in the United States. I worry, however, about the government here. It is weak, and gridlocked, and it is uncertain whether the rules will change and thwart our progress to exploit the technologies.”

“Ah. Well, we do have a different government structure than in the People’s Republic. That is certainly true. There is much to be said for our form, but it has its uncertainties. We cannot just dictate the direction of business as the Party can in your land. But, we have our ways of ensuring a favorable business climate.”

“Well, I hope so Martin. We have made a sizeable investment through SouthEast Exports, and we jointly have a lot at risk.”

“Jiao, I hear you. I do.  And your presence on our board affords you a place to watch those investments. Our youngest, and lovliest, board member now I should add.”

“Martin, you flatter me. But my father did not put me on his leadership team because of my looks. I was first in my class at the university and I had excellent teachers. My father was my first, and my best, teacher. I can assure you that I am up to the task.”

“I have no doubt of that Mrs. Luo. You are a formidable addition to our board, and your father would be proud of you.”

“Martin, let’s talk about your business here in the United States. I appreciate your growth in the mining sector, but you have other divisions as well. Perhaps I can be of benefit to you in those areas where your focus has been diluted of late.”

“Financial sectors, of course. Your area of specialty. Yes, we do have interests there. Banks. Loans. Securities. Have you completed your fact finding tour of MK Financial?”

“I did indeed, last month during my tour of the United States. I visited with your executive team and have identified some areas where I believe that there is a high degree of risk, both in terms of wise investments and in terms of cybersecurity. I am not quite convinced that the lessons of the mortgage bubble meltdown of 2008 were learned and will be avoided in the future.”

“Jiao, I have experienced managers leading MK Financial, and I would not be so quick to judge them or their portfolios. But, you have a right to be convinced of their solvency. Let me arrange further meetings with that team to answer any of the questions that you have.”

“Indeed. I will be here for a large part of this month as well and will expect to have those meetings. I would like to start with the banks, and especially with the currency investments. I am troubled by what seems to be speculation in some currencies. Can you explain them?”

“Well, I see that you have been looking around. Currency is a tricky market, and is not entirely about profits. There are political considerations that might not be readily apparent to someone not familiar with the operation of our governments. Having said that, you should have access to whatever information you need to protect your investment in our enterprise. Let’s be sure that we are taking an enterprise point of view.”

“Indeed, it is to our mutual success, Martin.”

“You mentioned the technology sector. I am afraid that I have not paid much attention to our companies that sell in that area. Did you look at them on your last visit as well?”

“I did indeed. I spent some time with the division President, a Mr. Jeffery Hoenig. I find him a smart man and quite an entrepreneur. Mr. Hoenig has made an interesting array of investments and grants in emerging technologies in the energy and biomedical technologies. Some of them have immediate growth opportunities that must be exploited.”

“You’ve used that word exploited twice in this conversation, Jiao. What do you have up your sleeve?”

“Martin, you are a busy man. You have quite enough on your plate with your global mining business units. Play with your trucks and tractors and minerals and make us a lot of money. Let me look after these minor technology divisions and protect my investment. You trust me, don’t you.”

“As much as I trust anyone in business, which is not much. But I am fully engaged and there is only so much that I can watch. Do what you can with the technology division. You have my permission.”

With that, and hoping to disengage and retire to her suite downstairs, Jiao Luo changed topics.

“Martin, if I may ask, how is your dear wife Susan. I enjoyed my brief visit with her last month at the hospital.”

“Ah, Susan.” Martin grew pensive, and looked out the window. “She is, I am afraid, not faring well. She is suffering. She is in quite a bit of pain. And with all of my money I cannot lessen it.”

Jiao sat silently, as Martin reflected on his wife’s deteriorating condition. It was clearly emotional. All of that power, and he was powerless in the face of her pain.

“Martin, have you given thought to the technology that I mentioned on my last visit? There may be relief to be found there. There are amazing breakthroughs happening in the technologies of pain management and, whether you remember or not, you have funded one of them.”

“I remember you mentioning that you were going to look at one. Has that device been proved out yet? I need to know. I need to be sure.”

“Martin, I will know more later today when I visit Dr. Evans at the campus. Are you sure that you can’t go with me? It is, as I understand it, just a short distance from here by car at the University of Illinois. I have a brother studying there, and I am going to see him as well.”

“I can’t go, I am afraid. I have an engagement tonight here in Chicago at an event honoring an old friend. Then I am going to Michigan for a week to close down my Summer house on Lake Michigan. Then I am headed back to Toronto and to Susan.”

“Martin, you have so much to do and you have been going all day long into the early morning. I am going to say goodnight and retire to my suite before heading off to the campus later today. We will talk again before I leave. Thank you again for seeing me.”

“It is my pleasure, Jiao. Sleep well.”

Martin saw Mrs. Luo out and decided that it was time after this full day to nap before tonight’s dinner with his old friend Robert Ingvall.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter Seven

Rashida Maddox was pissed. On a normal Tuesday morning at 2am this place would be clearing out of the normal contingent of stoners, street people, and dorm-rats looking to stretch their allowances from home and she would have had clear sailing until she was out of here by 5am,  before families starting arriving with their kids for breakfast time. She already had her tables swept and the aisles mopped, with all of the syrup dispensers and ketchup bottles refilled. She was hoping for at least an hour with her Business 101 textbook that was tucked open behind the counter to cram for a test in her 8 o’clock class. “Why did I sign up for a class that early again?”, she thought as she watched two Asian guys in army surplus getups come in and grab a table in Trish’s section over by the restrooms.  Because she was eager to take a full class load, and because she had filled out the class schedule at registration way back before she had found this job on the night shift, that’s why. She wouldn’t make that Freshman mistake again. That is, if she made it through Professor Wilson’s test tomorrow and  made it to Sophomore year.

This wasn’t a normal Tuesday at the Green Street IHOP in Champaign though. People were starting to stream in and find tables. Rashida was picking up from the chatter that these were campaign workers, coming in early to carbo-load before training for a month long voter drive push to the election next month. Some were talking about the phone banks that they were learning how to set up. One guy was making out lists for the drivers that would be picking up people and taking them to the polls to vote. One girl she recognized from her dorm had stopped by earlier in the shift and asked her if she was registered to vote and if she would be voting for the Democratic Party candidates. Probably, Rashida thought. Perky girl was that inspiring with her enthusiasm and with her admonitions about how important this election was for their generation. Probably. If she voted, that was. First she needed to study. Then get through her exam and three more classes. Then sleep off this graveyard shift. The election was an eternity away.

The only other person in the IHOP not talking about the election was the agitated young man that had been her only customer from midnight to now. He was picking at his food and making a mess of his plate. Half talking to himself, half singing bits of ACDC songs, as a tic of sorts. Cute, she thought. White dude, but dateable.  He was obviously not one of the stoners that she had to fend off night after night. In fact, he had hardly paid her any attention at all. He didn’t make eye contact when he ordered his food, or at all for that matter. He was just closing his cell phone after an animated conversation when she swung by his table with the check.

“Can I get you anything else, honey?”

“I’m good”, Steve said. “I’m waiting for someone now. Can I hold off on paying until she gets here?”

“Okay, that’s fine. I’m here awhile longer”, Rashida said. Maybe the girl that was coming would have money for a decent tip. “ If you need anything, just ask.”

“Coffee? Can I switch from diet to coffee? I like coffee.”

“Coffee it is. I’ll be right back.” As Rashida went to retrieve a fresh pot of coffee, she saw the hostess seating a tall guy in the booth next to her customer. One guy, by himself. There wouldn’t be a big tip there either. If she was going to have to wait on tables instead of studying for her exam she wanted large groups, preferably large enough that the tip would be added to the bill automatically. Oh well. Another shift gone.

Tucker slid into his booth up against the wall. He liked to take the side with the best view of the room where he could indulge in people watching as he ate. Well, half of the people anyway. Okay, he wanted to girl watch while he ate. He couldn’t care less how many men were in the place, like the agitated young man with his back to Tucker in the next booth. Waitresses caught his roaming eye, as did the women in the election training group. He wouldn’t agree with them politically, of course, but that didn’t keep him from enjoying the wonderous beauties of a woman. He was a man, after all, and yes – men are dogs. Woof woof.

Being generally antisocial, Tucker liked this time. He liked eating alone. He liked entertaining people, but didn’t necessarily want to eat with people. He had discovered in his time on the road that this was not true of everyone. His girlfriend – stop! his ex-girlfriend he had to remind himself again - would never even think about going to a restaurant to eat alone. Many would not. They would be mortified with embarrassment, or bored, or both. What’s up with that, he thought. He was fine with the solo dining experience. He looked forward to it, in fact. This was his time to think through how the stage show had been and to purge it from his mind and move on. It was his time to plan and to organize the trip that he had planned for the next week or so.

Tucker was excited about his road trip to Chicago later in the day. He had planned it for a while, coordinating it online with his blogger buddies, some of whom he was going to meet in person for the first time. What would they really be like, he wondered. It’s hard to tell from internet chat only, especially when their common bond online was so narrow. They were all film afficianados, and all film industry wannabes. Robert Ingvall was their common bond, their one degree of separation. They had all “met” in the comment section on Ingvall’s excellent blog where they had passionate – but civil – discussions of film quality, methods, and meaning. What an eclectic bunch they were!

“What can I get for you this morning, sweetheart?” Rashida asked, interrupting his musings.

“Well, hello darling”, Tucker replied with his stage charm. It was a natural reaction to people now. He wanted people to like him. It was an occupational hazard. It wasn’t all fake. He really did like waitresses, and appreciated the hard job that they had in the service industry. He had been raised to know that part of character was in how you treated those who were waiting on you, and they would always find a friendly face in Tucker. “Given what time of night, or should I say morning, it is I am thinking breakfast will work. How is your breakfast special?”

Rashida appreciated the friendly face at this point in her shift. She might just linger here for a minute or two, before heading over the service the self-absorbed electioneers. “It’s the best in town. Cheap, too. Can I get you some eggs, honey?”

“Three eggs, sausage – patties, not links – some hash browns and toast will do it for me. Wheat bread for the toast. Not coffee, though. I need to sleep in a bit. How about just water for me?”

“How do you like your eggs?”

“What’s that called with the runny yolk? Over easy, is that right?”

“That’s it, baby. I’ll get that right up for you”, Rashida said in a flirty style. Better for tips, and this one might be good for a tip.

“Take your time. Rashida, is it? Take your time Rashida. I’ll be here a while.”

Where was he. Oh yes. Thinking about seeing his online friends this week. A good bunch of friends they were.

Robert Ingvall was their guru. The grand poohbah. The man. He was their guiding force and their linchpin. Robert set the discussion, always, with his blog articles and on the social media. The group were just commenters, but as a group they were pretty good commenters. Civil to a fault, even when they did not agree, and with something useful to contribute to the discussion. Tucker stood out in that group as the lone conservative, as the discussion often turned political even if it started with film. But, Robert welcomed him on the blog – welcomed even dissent – and the commenter community for the most part took him in, if only as a sparring partner. No doubt they thought Tucker unusual given his affinity for the Liberty Movement, inexplicable to their way of thinking. But that was mutual. Weren’t they all, Tucker thought, all unusual characters in their own right?

Teddy certainly was. A character, that was for sure. Teddy was a horse rancher in northern Indiana. Just across the state line from Michigan. Michiana, he called it. Ha! Teddy had lived quite a life, and that life came through loud and proud in the comments section. Teddy had been both an academic and a wanderer in his early years, traveling on the fringes of the counterculture movement in 60’s America. He was literate. He was poetic. He was philosophic. Mostly, he was a force of nature. Until you knew how to take him, Teddy could be quite intimidating. Once you knew him, he was a friend for life. And Tucker had met him, last year out on the road at a show. Teddy was in the audience laughing his hearty laugh. They’d had quite a memorable time after the show talking politics and science and Ingvall.

Some of the others he had met in person about this time last year at the Chicago International Film Festival. Tucker only had time in his schedule for two days at the Festival, but he made the most of those two days. He tried to have a full immersion experience not only in film but in the festival experience. He would be surprised if any other civilian at the festival had a fuller experience than he did. Tucker willed it, and did it – with some planning.

Part of the planning included meeting up with online sparring partner John VanDemeer for dinner and a movie. John was a professor at Notre Dame in South Bend, and the two of them spent many a night online debating science topics like Darwin. Oh, the Darwin threads! They went on for days and months, resolving little but fun nonetheless. Tucker was a lone defender on the threads of a concept called Intelligent Design, which Robert Ingvall admired and encouraged. Even though John greatly outmatched Tucker in credentials in the field, he never flouted them and they debated into the night. John drove over and met Tucker downtown Chicago for dinner that night and then for a movie they both bought tickets for. A French film with subtitles, he remembered, about a duel among military re-enactors. A wonderful film. The kind of film that neither John nor Tucker would have seen without the influence of Ingvall. As luck would have it, they encountered Robert Ingvall in lobby of the AMC Theaters and told him of their experience. “You two are here together? Really?” he said, thoroughly surprised. The picture of the three of them together that night was priceless to Tucker.

Hope Yang, from Seattle, was there at the festival last year too. As was Silvia Toceau from Quebec and Ibrahim from St. Louis. All were there in relation to Robert Ingvall, and he had gotten to put a face to an outline persona for each of them. Friends first, blog arguments were a distant second when you are enjoying the experience of watching quality films together.

Tucker had indeed had the full immersion experience at CIFF last year, and he was hoping to repeat that again this year. He had two tickets in his car to events at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, starting tomorrow night for opening night. Tonight, he reminded himself since it was already early morning. He had two tickets for several films that he had chosen from the program for the festival’s run from October 12 to the 25. An eclectic mix of mainstream Hollywood fare, foreign films, documentaries, and even a silent film. He had two tickets, pricey ones at that, for the main opening event - a dinner honoring a Chicago hometown boy made good in the film industry – one Mr. Robert Ingvall – who was at the Festival with a new movie that he had edited. Tucker was excited for that event, and was hoping for a moment to say hello and shake hands with his online friend – no, his friend – Robert.

Two tickets. He had two tickets, and that was a problem. He had bought the extra ticket for his girlfriend Jenna. Stop! Ex-girlfriend, he reminded himself. The breakup was still fresh, and he wasn’t adjusted to it. What would he do with the extra ticket? Hmmm. He would figure that out when he got to Chicago. Maybe he could sell the extra to someone outside the theater.

He looked around for the lovely Rashida and his food as he pondered the dilemma of the extra ticket.

“Here you go, good lookin’”, Rashida said as she slid his three egg special across the table to him. “You enjoy that.”

“And here he is, Miss”, Rashida said to the tall cute blond girl that she had brought with her. “You can sit right over there.”

Miss Kappa slid into the booth opposite the agitated young man in the booth next to Tucker’s. “What can I get you, honey?”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chapter Six

Tucker finished an unhealthy snack of microwaved pizza rolls and let out a deep and satisfying belch, looking quickly over his shoulder to reassure himself that he was alone. Why do we do that, he wondered sheepishly? Checking his laptop he saw that he was now connected to the internet via the air card, and he rolled up to his makeshift desk to begin surfing the internet in order to release the stage tension after the show. It was a ritual. Not a productive ritual by any measure, but a comfortable one. He could lose hours of his life working across the links on the top bar of his screen if he wasn't careful with his time. Being essentially anti-social, he did not start with social networking sites, but had to work up to those.

Tucker liked to start with the Drudge Report as his touchstone and go for a while where the links took him. He hopped links from Drudge's page off to newspapers and aggregators and blogs all over the world. There were straight news stories about the President or Congress and their latest standoffs. There were sensational news stories and even news of the weird to pique his interest. There were links at the bottom to all of the news agencies and all of the newspapers and all of the wire services from arond the world. Importantly to Tucker, there were links to all of the major op-ed writers and their current columns, if you could still call them columns when they were digital and not in newspapers in inches. On rare ocassions Tucker would open Drudge and see the flashing siren announcing a significant breaking news stories. They were not always accurate, Tucker knew. What did Drudge claim, something like 80% accuracy. No sirens tonight, though. There were just placeholder articles giving the last polling results a month out from the election.

Exhausting Drudge's links took a good twenty minutes or so and cleansed his news palate, so to speak. Transitioning, he  was off to the more specialized websites where Tucker's political bent would come into play and influence his choices of website's to visit. Tucker had arrived at this point of his life as a political conservative, as he defined it within the American political spectrum. He hadn't always been a conservative, that was for sure. Back in his younger days, his college days particularly, he was an energetic liberal. He even had a banner poster in his dorm room proclaiming his intention to go to Canada to dodge the draft should it come back. A brief stint in the military and then thirty years of factory work as a manager had slowly changed all of that, and he found himself shifting through a libertarian period and then finally to conservative worldview. All of that life experience found it's way into his comedy act now in various bits.

Tucker poured himself a cup of strong coffee, and then moved inexorably on the next level of news surfing - the partisan opinion aggregators. He liked the conservative websites like TownHall and Newsmax, which were run by think tanks or experienced journalists. There he could find a partisan take on the same new stories that he found on Drudge, as well as finding editorials from the leading conservative pundits and media stars. After spending himself on the conservative writing that caught his eye, Tucker liked to balance himself with a visit to the Huffington Post - which was reliably liberal in its selections. While he found himself heckling the site somewhat as he read, he wanted to get their take on the news and peruse the liberal opinion columns. Balance.

Surfing onwards to the most partisan level of news sites, Tucker indulged in the polar opposite forums of Free Republic vs. Democratic Underground. It was often no holds barred on these sites, with partisans chatting amongst themselves about the dire straits we find ourselves in, the betrayal of the folks by the cowardly political leaders who were selling out their parties, and the last chances to turn things around. He had learned how it worked. Someone would post an article for discussion, and then the partisans would have at it with sequential comments agreeing or disagreeing with the article's point of view and often taking potshots at their polar opposites - the "Freepers" or the DUmmies". It was all clearly red meat for the partisans, of which Tucker was undoubtedly one at this point.

All of the news sites were focused on the upcoming election.  Predictions were all over the map, with optimism running high on both sides of the spectrum. Some of it was rational, and some of it wishful thinking. In all likelihood the Republicans were set to hold the House, and make major gains in, and perhaps retake, the US Senate. The President was up for election in this cycle, as was his agenda. If the Democrats were, in fact, soundly defeated again, then his ability to carry further his agenda would be hampered by an emboldened opposition with the ability to block all of his legislative priorities. The President was traveling on a coat-tails tour of the battleground states hoping to pull off some saves. Many of the senior Congressmen in his party had barely survived in the primaries and were facing unexpectedly stiff opposition from the Liberty Movement in the general election. Some may not survive election day if the worst-case scenarios played out.

Tucker saw some stories about the early voting and browsed a few of those. Early voting was high, and seemed to be breaking for the Republicans. “How did they know that?”, Tucker wondered. Were they looking at the ballots when they were supposed to be sealed? Is that how they knew how many dead bodies to bring on election day? “Good one”, Tucker thought. “I should have used that one on stage tonight”. There were some stories of voting irregularities already showing up online. Some early voters had complained about not being able to select the candidates from one party on electronic voting machines. He even saw one article about machines in his own Congressional District  that already had a check mark next to Representative Washburn’s name. Wasn’t he a Republican, and an incumbent several times over?  But, he did have some controversial votes in the last session crossing the aisle to vote with the President. He had a strong challenger from the Liberty Movement as a write-in for the general election. Washburn was sinking fast in the polls and was desperate. The President had even flown in last week to stump for him, hoping to have one friendly face as a committee chair if the Republicans did indeed take the house.

Feeling sufficiently up to date on the election news, Tucker was ready to sign in to his social networking sites. He had two primary destinations for his social networking needs: Facebook and Twitter.

"Last show on the tour is in the books. Thank you all for coming out to see us. I'll see you on the road again somewhere", Tucker posted on his Facebook wall.

Facebook was mostly still eluding him in terms of being a useful tool. It was a necessary part of his business life as a performer. He had a small fan base on the B-circuit, and was able to keep up with the fans that he "friended". Mostly he listed his club schedule and a way for them to buy his one performance CD. He also posted comments occasionally on his wall about funny things that happened to him on tour or with links to videos and articles that he liked. He kept up with his three brothers in New York, Birmingham, and Los Angeles since he didn't get to see them often in real life. He also had been accepted as friends by the few celebrities that he knew from the entertainment business.

One of those celebrities - Robert Ingvall - was a prodigious Twitter user, and Tucker had himself become addicted to the pseudo-texting site. Here was a place that he could express himself fully, although concisely, by micro-blogging tweets out into the Twittersphere for his followers to read. His timeline was all over the place in terms of content. Some tweets were personal observations from daily life. Some were quotes from, and links to, articles that he had read on the op-ed sites. A lot of his posts were about politics, with content both original to him and in reply to those he followed. He even engaged in mini-debates on Twitter with followers on current news stories. Twitter-bates was the word he coined for that, and Tucker did that as well as anybody on there.

Ingvall was up late most nights, well into the early morning hours, and Tucker could see that he was on Twitter now. Strangely, he was tweeting about everything but the election. Probably because Robert was a well known Democrat and had been through enough election cycles in his long life to know that this year was not shaping up well. The unemployment rate had dogged the President all year and had not turned around in time to help his ratings. Robert was keeping his mind occupied with other things. From that lack of activity, Tucker knew that he would likely find him more engaged over on his blog.

Before he headed over to the blog to spar with his virtual friends, Tucker threw out a few Tweets. "Don't forget to register to vote in November, unless you're not paying attention. You guys stay home." He Tweeted that kind of stuff, plus links to a few op-ed columns that talked about how pivotal this election was for future generations. He saw that Lisa from St. Paul had sent him a Direct Message, and he replied to that. Lisa was recently widowed and trying to re-establish herself and he tried to help as he could with a little humor. Satisfied, he pulled up his favorite haunt - the blog.

Stumbling a couple of years earlier onto Robert Ingvall's web journal – or blog, in the vernacular - was a pleasant surprise for Tucker. He had been reading a review of Ingvall's latest best-selling feature film and saw a reference to a separate blog. Not a film blog, as Tucker had expected a famous film director to have. It turned out to be a general interest blog, where Ingvall wrote weekly articles on topics as diverse as politics, religion, science, and culture. Wow! Brilliant articles, Tucker found, that showed a breadth of thinking that transcended the blockbuster action thrillers that the Engvall was predominantly known for directing. Or, more accurately, that he used to direct more often years ago when he was in better health. In recent years health complications had limited his ability to work on location, and he had transformed himself into a gifted film editor - working from home on a suite of computers. Most knew that he had had complications from a virus that he had picked up on a jungle location shoot. What they didn't know was that he had developed a fairly pronounced case of agoraphobia and very rarely ever left his condo in the Willis building downtown Chicago. It didn't matter where he was physically though, as he maintained a near 24/7 presence online.

In the intervening two years since finding Ingvall's blog, Tucker had become a frequent commenter on the site. He eagerly read each new article weekly. He appreciated the brilliant and the eloquent writing. And he disagreed passionately with almost every article that he read. Tucker respected Ingvall enough to disagree, in a civil manner, in the comments. Not as a debate, but as a conversation. A conversation carried on weekly across the many threads of the blog. Sometimes, in fact, across many “threads” simultaneously.

Tucker was an old hand at the blog now, and he commented now differently than when he had first found it. That night he had written an angry comment in response to a blog post about a film that Ingvall hated, but that Tucker had really liked. It wasn't a vulgar comment by any means, but the anger behind it was palpable and left nothing to the imagination. What he hadn't expected from a comment left on a blog of a celebrity was a response. But he got one, in the form of reply embedded at the end of Tucker's comment as it was posted. Wow! Not only did he get a response, which thrilled him in itself, but it was quite a civil response at that. That set Tucker back on his heels, made him think about the nature of online anonymous posting, and set the stage for many hundreds of comments to come.

Many of his friends had posted on the latest thread in the last day or so, and Tucker spent some time catching up with comments. Blogs were a delayed conversation, compared to Twitter's near-instantaneous feedback. You might post a comment on the blog and not get the response you needed for a couple of days. Tucker hit "end" and went down to the bottom of the comments page and then worked his way back up, commenting as he went.

There were in fact multiple comments directed at Tucker! There was a scholarly comment from Johnathan Vandemeer, a professor at Notre Dame. There was one from a scientist in France. One from Teddy the horse rancher, tweaking him a little. One from GD in Australia, and another from "labrat89" in Canada. Tucker was perhaps overmatched by several of the commenters that he tangled with on the current topic of this thread: Theory of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Movement. But, he had enough classes at the university and thirty years of studying the topic as a hobby to help him hang in there. He was one of the very few holding up the ID side of the discussion, and it took a while to get all of the comments answered. Fun!

Tucker looked up at the clock. 2 AM! Time had passed quickly online, and now he was just noticing how hungry he was. He grabbed a coat and headed out looking for somewhere he could get a filling meal on what was just barely Tuesday morning.

Chapter Five

"Mr. Kelo, your guest is ready to see you now".

"Thank you, Justin. I will be up to the suite momentarily. Would you see that she has refreshments please."

"Of course, sir". Justin Pearce retired from the small private room, leaving his boss alone in the hotel’s private dining room with his distinguished guest.

It had been a long day for Martin Kelo and it seemed that it was not over yet. He had been in Chicago for two days now and had been in meetings almost non-stop since he had arrived by private jet at Midway Airport. Over the years he had found that he required very little sleep and midnight meetings like this were not uncommon for a driven man. He found that meeting at a late hour gave him an advantage over his business associates who might not be as clear-headed as he was. Justin, who had adapted to this schedule and worked these long hours alongside his boss, assisted by serving only decaffeinated coffee and keeping the lighting rheostats artificially low. Martin had negotiated some of his best deals after his associate was yawning opposite him at a table. As the tired gentleman with him right now was doing.

“Senator Bastean, thank you for seeing me at this late hour.”

“It’s not a problem, Mr. Kelo. I was in town anyway working out of my offices downtown. Besides, meeting at this time keeps us off the record, so to speak. The press has given up following me by this time, and has gone to bed. Now is the best time to conduct some real business. Isn’t Chicago beautiful this time of night?” the Senator asked, yawning as he gestured out at the view over the Navy Pier and Lake Michigan.

“Indeed it is. That’s one of the pleasures of my visits here. But, I am keeping you from retiring after a long day of serving your constituents. May I just ask, how is the Amendment coming?”

The Senator suddenly seemed tired, and sat back into his plush chair. “Well, as you know, the battle for affordable health care in our country has been a long and, I would say continuing, fight. As you know, as one of the chief sponsors of the “America’s Healthy Future Act” I have been in the fight for a few years know, and have spent a lot of my political capital.”

“And you have done well, Senator, for the people of Illinois and of your nation. It was a close vote, but you pushed it through to completion over what I must say was some fierce resistance from the other party. Stubborn lot, they are. Single-payer health care is the right future for your country. Right both economically, and as a matter of fairness for all of your citizens and not just those of us with means to pay for our care. Health care is a right for all, as my countrymen in Canada decided quite a while back. We’re frankly puzzled that it took your country, a superpower, so long to make progress in that direction.”
“I am as puzzled as you are, Mr. Kelo. But, that is the task for us Progressives in the Congress of the United States. To make progress that direction as did the Progressives that came before us. With your generous help, of course.”

“And you shall continue to have it, Senator. Mr. Pearce has a check for you – from our US subsidiary - on your way out for the Party, to spend as you see fit as you fight for this bill.”

“You’ve been very generous, Martin. Thank you, my friend.”

“It is nothing. Again, how is the Amendment coming?”

“Remind me, Martin, of your interest in the bill? Why are pushing for it?”

“Pushing is a loaded word, Senator. I have interest in it, yes. I believe that the “Techology and Education” Amendment to the health care act is beneficial to your country. Companies like some that I own need the go-ahead signal to invest in the technologies that will advance the boundaries and quality of care for your citizens. Technologies that you haven’t yet seen and would want for your people, as soon as we can get it in the hands of providers.”

“I see.”

Martin Kelo became quiet and pensive as he stared out of the panoramic hotel windows at the Windy City below him. “I have a personal interest in this as well. Get it done.”

Senator Richard Bastean started to answer, but Mr. Kelo was already up and out of a side door and his assistant Mr. Pearce was there in his place ushering the Senator out of the room and into a freight elevator to leave the hotel through the kitchen and out into a back alley into the night.

Martin used the elevator ride up to his suite to clear his mind and to transition to his meeting with his guest upstairs. It had been a whirlwind of meetings since he had arrived in Chicago, and the pace was not likely to let up in the coming days he would be spending in the Midwest. He was, however, hoping to mix a little pleasure with his business.

Before he left Toronto for the States, Martin had seen to it that his business ventures were in good shape with a strategy developed for each division for the coming year. Martin Kelo Enterprises was a global conglomerate with several subsidiaries and front companies and boards of directors for each. Martin was the driving force for the rapid growth of the company in the last ten years, and was perhaps the only one who knew the complete organizational reach. He had started with a nest egg of inherited money and had entered the field brashly in the money markets. He aggressively played in the field of hedge funds, which did quite well in the run-up to the housing-bubble crash. He had sizeable venture capital investments in companies in the growing health care fields. He was also known, though less so by the general public, for currency speculation - famously shorting countries that he predicted would have major fluctuations in their currency. Global companies knew no nationalist loyalty, Martin's least of all. There was a greater good to be serviced than any national need, and for Martin that good was accumulating wealth rapidly.

The money market companies that were the core of  Martin's success were now safely diversified into more tangible assets under the directorship of some able managers that ran the day to day business in his absence. Martin had been one of the very few to see the recession coming in the States, and had moved his money out of securitized mortgages and heavily into U.S. Treasury Bills. After the downturn happened in 2009, Martin had begun buying distressed companies that had laid off half of their workforce, betting that they would return to fiscal health as the demand for industrial products would inevitably come back. With the price of minerals and precious minerals depressed, Martin bought mines in Africa, and set up an office in Johannesburg. With the mining businesses in hand, he bought mining equipment manufacturing companies in the U.S. and South America, and idle shale oil mines in Canada. He choose Toronto to base his headquarters for the Kelo Americas subsidiary, where he was currently building Kelo Towers.

Those risks that Martin had taken in 2009 in buying the distressed companies, against the worried advice of some of his board members from the financial services sectors, had begun paying back in slowly burgeoning recovery of early 2010. His personal wealth was growing, pushing him well into the billionaires club.

That level of wealth had Martin thinking about his responsibilities as a global citizen, and he  began investing in a different line altogether - political activism. He formed new organizations, with new directors and new boards to influence the direction of progressive politics in Canada, in the Eastern European countries that were still finding their way after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in the United States that was transforming itself in the wake of the election of a charismatic and forward thinking President in 2008. The political activities were his new passion, and were the principal reason for his visit here in Chicago.

Martin was proud of the impact that his umbrella organization Progress for A New Global Century had made on the American political landscape in a short timeframe. He was confident that his spending had been able to blunt the unexpected rise of the Liberty Movement that had grown up in the wake of the recession to demand a halt to out-of-control spending and the expansive growth of the federal government. Martin believed in a larger government capable of delivering on the need for social and economic justice, and sought to accelerate that justice  through his political front groups, which he met with yesterday.

Martin had chosen his team well. They were all grade A leaders, with a passion for social justice and skills at electioneering. Each filled a necessary niche.

Kamillah Washington headed up the community organizer organization that was handling voter registration among the disenfranchised. She ran a network of paid organizers that enrolled voters on college campuses, at unemployment offices, at rallies, and at union halls. Kamillah was arranging buses from those locations to the polls for election day in November.

Kim Woodruff ran the County Clerks Project, and ambitious plan that recognized the importance of county officials in the counting and reporting of results on election day. Martin had watched the 2000 Presidential election recounts in Florida from overseas and was fascinated by the county clerks sitting in rooms counting the hanging chads and was struck by how few votes in one location could affect a nation-wide election. He became convinced that having progressive champions in those positions could make the difference in a close election, and was putting a serious amount of his money behind that proposition.

David Hallstrom supervised the think tank that produced white papers on various topics that advanced the progressive movement for distribution to the more progressive journalists around the country. David also fed stories to a network of libreral bloggers that blew stories up to the mainstream aggregator sites for immediate impact on the casual web surfers. David also headed up a separate journalistic pseudo professional organization that provided funding for hundreds of new correspondents at public radio member stations with a mission to focus on human interest stories about the downtrodden and oppressed peoples of America.

Finally, Juanita Alvarez handled direct funding of the campaigns of Congressman in the moderate to liberal ranks. She was a master of financial bundling and was funneling money through the various house caucases to the member's re-election committees. Lately, Juanita had significant success attracting donors throughout Martin's international connections through the use of untraceable prepaid debit cards by encouraging members to disable the verification systems required by the election laws. Those might or might not be challenged after the election, but were very useful to fund ad campaigns before the election.

One other, retired master sargeant Malcolm Gunn, had reported separately about the black ops activities that he was personally handling for Martin. Operations that he was about to share with his last guest.

Bing. The doors of the direct elevator openend and Martin stepped out to find himself face to face with Ms. Jiao Luo. CEO of the South Asia exports, and his partner in more and more of his enterprises.

"Martin, it's so good to see you again."

"A pleasure, Jiao, as always."

"Did you get good reports from your team?", Jiao asked

"I did indeed. Everything is going as planned."

"Well", Jiao sighed, "I guess now we just take our chances with the voters next month."

"Who said that I was leaving it up to chance?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter Four

“Midnight already”, Tucker asked himself. The show had gone a little long. It was the last show of the tour - might as well use it all up. The four of them had thrown out all of the regular bits, plus trying some new stuff that they might want to use on the club circuit as they waited for another steady gig to come along. Thus was the life of a comedian.

What to do now, now that the show was over? Tucker was too keyed up to be able to go home and sleep right away. He knew from these many nights on the road that it would take a couple of hours more to burn off the energy and be able to lay down for some zzzz's. The difference tonight, though, was that he was back in his hometown.

Tucker had been invited over to a fraternity's after-hours parties, and had declined. Really, he was past that in his life. Not that he hadn't had plenty of nights in his life where he had gone out after a show on the road and found any of the myriad ways to get in trouble when no one knows you personally. He had. He had his share of wild nights, both enjoyed and regretted. But, he was grown up now. Now he was into more sedate entertainments. The other comedians had taken up the frat on their offer though, especially Courtney - who would be worshipped there. Tucker wished them all good luck and said he would see them out on the circuit in some dive somewhere sometime. He had spent enough time with them in the last 6 months that he didn't need to draw out the good-bye.

It was just a quick walk over to his off-campus apartment. Down past the Student Union and over across the Quad. Past the Performing Arts Center and down some side streets to a small apartment building, where he had found a short-term sublet on an efficiency apartment from a student who was departing the campus early. He had gotten a good deal on it actually, and had gotten it mostly furnished. He had moved his few possessions, a TV and Stereo and some books and bedding, in earlier yesterday. That was before his disorienting afternoon nap before the show.

Tucker turned on the TV and flicked through the channels while his laptop was booting up. He settled on Fox News Channel, even though he had missed the re-run of Hannity for the night, just to have some ambient noise. Searching through his luggage he found the electro-neuro-stimulator device that he had gotten from a chiropractor somewhere on the road for his now frequent back pain. With some practiced care he could now affix the electrode pads to just the right places near his spine and shoulder blade to get the most relief. The first time he did it by himself one of the pads slipped off and he had shocked himself trying to put it back. He was still nervous about turning up the current too much, even though you had to in order for it be effective. Tucker stared at the device for a moment, wondering with his engineering mind who had invented it and how they knew that running current through his back muscles would relieve pain. Whoever invented it had his gratitude at the moment as the relief was kicking in as the adrenaline from the show was wearing off. Some people wear the neuro-stimulators 24 hours a day and sleep in theirs, the doc had told him. He just needed to wear his for an hour or so at a time, and would take it off before hitting the sack.

Tucker popped his new Verizon air card into an available USB port on his laptop to get connected to his social network sites. The aircard was one of the best of the growing number of gadgets in his life and fit his transient lifestyle better than hardwired internet in his apartment would. He had a pretty strong signal on campus and would be online quickly, networked in with his vitural buddies. It was becoming an everyday activity, enabled by Verizon and Blogger, and Twitter, and all of the other sites that he frequented and participated in. What could he say? He was an online addict, and he knew it. It was his way of dealing with loneliness.

He could put nice face on it and call it "solitude" instead of loneliness in the times when it bothered him. Strange that a man who made most of his living on stage entertaining hundreds or thousands in his best gigs preferred solitude. He reveled in it, actually. But, that was just who he was, honestly. On-stage a clown, off-stage a loner. Not having many friends IRL - in real life - was an occupational hazard for Tucker. That was certainly one tangible cost of living life on the road out of a suitcase, transient. On the rare ocassions when he stopped to consider that cost, Tucker would admit to himself that what he had were more like acquaintances. Some, at church for example, were long-term acquaintainces that had never really progressed to more than that.

Virtual friendships and virtual habits had come to compensate for what he lacked in his life in the flesh-and-blood department. Wherever he was, whatever town he was in, wherever he was staying, he had the internet to keep him company. He could connect, sign on, and surf and meet up with his network of online friends. Facebook was his tool for keeping up with family, coworkers, and old high school buddies. Twitter served a different purpose, and was for expressing himself out into the world 140 characters at a time - micro-opinions - and for keeping his small coterie of fans up to date on his travels and gigs.

Tucker could also indulge his hobby of browsing multiple familiar websites offering up the full spectrum of news and political opinion. He would start with the news aggregator sites like “The Drudge Report” and click on many of the links that would take him to an array of online newspapers and magazines with topical articles on current events. Then he was off to the mainstream partisan sites for links to editorial columnists, which formed a lot of his understanding about more complex issues of the day. Finally to the highly-partisan forums, both left and right, for flame-thrower chat from the commenters. Those were always highly entertaining, as long as you remained a lurker like Tucker did and stayed out of the line of fire.

No doubt about it. Tucker was a news junkie. And these were interesting times with a never-ending supply of disasters and scandals. And, of course, a national election coming up whose significance to the nation’s future that the college kids he had just left were mostly oblivious to. Oh well, we all grow up and learn from life. A job and a life and payments and taxes and retirement planning all had a way of focusing your attention on the national figures who affected those things.

Tucker picked up a copy of the campus newspaper off of the coffe table while he was waiting to get online and skimmed it. News on the front cover and sports on the back page. Various news stories of interest to a college community in between. He was, as usual, chagrined at the tilt of the news coverage. Why couldn’t people see the bias in most newspapers? A bias not just in the way a story was written, but in what was covered in the first place and what was omitted. Frustrating. A large full color ad caught his eye as he was flipping through the pages. The ad was recruiting students to participate in an ongoing research project in the biomedical department for an extensive “pain level” study. Well, Tucker thought, that’s one way to pay for the growing cost of college these days. How did kids afford tuition and board these days, even at a state school? They must be paying well for participation, though. Someone had spent a lot of money on that ad.

Chapter Three

Tucker took a look back from the side of the lecture platform to soak in the applause as the crowd's attention was re-directing from his set to Courtney's. She had asked him offstage earlier what Big Ten school was Illinois's rival in basketball, and was using that information to insult Purdue as she opened her act. Beta was out of his seat fist-pumping that joke. His distracted ex-roomie was exiting the ampitheater classroom up one of the steep aisles, taking two or three at a time like he was on a mission.

The sponsoring frat had set up a green room of sorts down the hallway from the lecture hall in a teacher's lounge. They had set up some easy chairs and a TV and some refreshments for the talent. They weren’t rock star level refreshments because The Professors of Comedy weren't celebrities on that level. There were sandwiches and soda and, being a fraternity, a keg of beer on tap. Roberto Juarez and Venkat were in there getting psyched up for their shows. They were whispering to themselves as they ran through their sets semi-verbally, mimicking the practiced physical movements that would enhance the bits. Exaggerated hand gestures. Exaggerated facial tics. Slapstick stuff at points. Roberto did a set mostly about dating pitfalls, which always went over with this age crowd, and Venkat did some ethnic impressions and cultural jokes . They were getting into character and would not be chatty at the moment. Tucker needed to unwind and decided to skip the Green Room for a while and started wandering the halls instead.

Had it really been 30 years since he had classes in this very building? It still looked very familiar and unchanged. The campus had grown North continually since then, with shiny new red-bricked buildings trying to maintain the architectural theme of the campus. New bicycle paths threaded  through the campus with empty bicycle racks at each building entrance. There was even a second Quad of sorts in the middle of the new complex, for the engineering students to congregate on and socialize with their peers. But this historic building that they were occupying tonight was still in active use. It held first year orientation type classes mostly. Nothing requiring the state-of-the-art equipment that was required in the newer buildings to conduct research. Hell, when he was here thirty years ago state-of-the-art had a different look to it. Crude robotic steel structures with giant-sized CPU's following lines marked out on the floor. He remembered first seeing "Touch-screen" panels that were huge and thick and operated by a matrix of beams of light that your finger would interrupt when you touched the glass. State-of-the-art was a concept that implied a constantly changing state, and the evolution of technology in Tucker's lifetime was staggering.

Tucker poked his head into some classrooms just for grins, letting the memory tour unwind his tension from the being on stage. From being "on" in the tightrope act that was stand-up comedy. He pictured himself as a much younger man sitting behind these desks, not knowing then how much he didn’t know. He was having flashbacks to a simpler time, remembering some successes and even some traumas.

This room that he was in, for example, was where he had earned his first "D" in college on a paper. Ah, yes. Rhetoric 105 – technical writing for engineers. What, engineers have to write differently from everyone else? Yes. Logical. Technical. Readable. Understandable. Concise, which is where he had gone wrong.

What was the topic, again? Ah yes. The teacher had assigned an impromptu writing instruction on the first day of class. One page on "your pet peeve". Scratching his head, he had stumbled about before he set on the topic of people who were bad sports, in sports. He easily filled the page with the flourishing soaring rhetoric that had gotten him so many "A"'s in high school, but would find the red-penned scorn of a teacher at this level. In fact, to his horror, his teacher had singled out his paper for recognition, dissecting it in the next session as an example of truly bad writing! Ouch! That session hurt. He was paying tuition to get this much ridicule? He raced into his teacher's next office hours on fire with hurt and anger. How could he be that good in high school English, and that bad here? It wasn't fair. Patiently, the teacher walked him through where he could do better. Knock off of the big words just for the sake of using big words. Brevity. Clarity. She challenged him to do better in her class, or else the bad grades would keep coming. And, slowly and surely, he did. He got it. And his writing greatly improved, and by the end of the semester he was back in her office thanking Mrs. Tanner.

"Thank you, again tonight, Mrs. Tanner", he thought as he silently saluted her. He didn't know at that moment what his career choices would be - and would never have guessed at the turn of events that would have him on stage tonight performing. But he did realize right at this moment that what she had taught him - brevity and clarity - would be instrumental to his skill as a stand-up comic and ventriloquist. Brief. Clear. And hopefully funny. The funny part seemed incongruous to his technical nature, and he had to work at it, but he did have some natural skills. He could still make his ex-girlfriend laugh every time that they talked, which came in handy at times when things got tense all over again.

Tucker was lost in reverie as he wandered through remembrances of missed opportunities at school and in his dating life too when he ran smack into a guy who had his back to him around the corner. It was Steve, from the audience, in an animated conversation.

"Sorry, man. Didn't see you there", Tucker apologized profusely.

Steve didn't even hear him or acknowledge Tucker. He had a point to make to his companion and was locked in on that.

"Dr. Evans, I'm telling you they've been in our work. It's been hacked. Taken. Gotten into!"

"Steve", Dr. Evans said somberly, "they are entitled to access to the work. They sponsored it with financing, and are in fact our partners on the project - even if they are not around to oversee it. Remember that."

"Okay. I get that. But I'm worried about what they are going to use it for." Steve was still agitated and was gesturing wildly. Tucker worked his way around them and left them there in the hallway as he worked his way back to the Green Room to get ready for the encore. He had been gone longer than he had thought.

Stephanie, their tour producer, was standing at the door looking around apprehensively.

"Hey man. Get in there! Venkat is just finishing and we need you for the wrap-up. You don't want to miss your last applause of the tour".

No, he did not. It had been a long time on the road this time around. And he wanted the payoff.

"Give it up for Tucker, Courtney Rae, Roberto, and Venkat", Stephanie was saying at the mike. "The Professors of Comedy!" And the crowd's standing ovation was the payoff that he needed and craved. He left the lecture hall and the campus finally feeling like a success.

Chapter Two

"So, is the dummy in the suitcase or behind the microphone?"

Really, Tucker thought? The frat boys filling the front rows were drunker than they were at most of the college venues that he had been playing lately. And louder. And less likely to graduate.

As the Greek-lettered inebriate had observed, the "Tucker Elliot Show" had not yet segued into the ventriloquism portion - which left him on his own to handle the heckler. When he had the puppets out he could really let fly in a projected voice. Eddie the Purple Monkey was wicked sharp with the retorts and could flay any hapless heckler into either silence or into an ally. But, Tucker had lingered in the observational humor, with dating stories to entertain the sorority girls that were starting to realize that their dates could be less than couth in a social setting. Eddie had yet to make his first appearance and was, in fact, still in the suitcase.

"Shouldn't you be in class?", Tucker shot out with a stage smile  that poorly hid his irritation at the interruption.

"We don't have class at night, you idiot."

"...or sucking on a keg with some guy smacking you on the butt with a paddle with letters on it? Please sir, may I have another!"

Tucker had been a dorm rat in college and wasn't a big fan of the fraternity system. If he let this guy go on very long, his animosity to the Greek system would surface and this would turn nasty.

"Dude, you wish you were a Beta Sigma. You wish."

"Dude", Tucker smiled - walking over to the other side of the stage to change the flow of the show and get this guy of off his back with minimal damage - "I'm alpha. I'm the alpha male with the microphone that these other folks paid to see tonight. What say we move on?"

With an election coming up in November, Tucker thought some political humor might change topics and do the trick. College kids were notorious apathetic voters, but thought themselves politically aware.

“So, you guys ready for the election around here? Let’s take your political temperature. How about this one: An illegal immigrant, a Muslim, and a Socialist walk into a bar. The bartender says: Good evening, Mr. President.”

The crowd collectively groaned, as he knew a skulls-full-of-mush college audience would  – especially in Illinois, in Obama country. Tucker smiled through a round of hearty boos.

“No?” More boos. “How about this one: Back in 2007 someone asked President George W. Bush if he had a ‘Plan B’ for Baghdad. He said no, because that involved two things he had a problem with: Iraq, and the alphabet.”

The audience roared it’s approval.

“Well, alright then! Now I know where we’re headed.”

Eddie the Purple Monkey was calling to Tucker from the suitcase. He was itching to get out and jump into the sorry state of the drunken fratboy's love life and mix it up a bit. If it was a small club gig, Tucker would have given in to that urge and run with it for a while. He needed to have some entertainment too some nights. But, these college lecture hall gigs had a different ambience and he was choosing to stay with the lighthearted funny.

"Bring out the next act already. You're boring, grandpa." Beta Sigma would not let up!

Boring? Sure, he was the only comic of the four on the "Comedy Professors" campus tour who didn't work blue, and this particular crowd would get rolling later on when the four letter words started flying from Courtney, Roberto, and Venkat. That's why he was the opening act.  But that didn't mean you couldn't be funny with wholesome observational humor and well-crafted bits. You could especially be funny at a heckler's expense, and that opportunity was cueing up nicely here. It was on.

Tucker made the split-second decision to switch up his planned bits, and began projecting.

"I vote with Beta there", came a new voice from the suitcase. "This guy's boring. Who votes with us?"

Tucker got a pained look on his face, and asked the crowd "Ah geesh. Who wants to meet Senator FlushPockets?"

The crowd roared. Tucker bent and unfolded the Senator puppet from his suitcase as he mentally geared up to take on that arrogant and snaky political personality and the glib voice that went with it. This was a new character that he was aching to try out before the tour ended and see how it played to a college crowd. Tonight's show was the wind-down to a fairly successful B-circuit tour of college campuses and small town civic center theaters. Tucker was a local at this campus, and had arranged this low-key show in a large physics lecture hall where the ampitheater seating gave them a close-up club feel and immediacy of feedback. Ticket sales had been mostly through the Greek system - one of the largest in the country. Normally college kids were politically apathetic, self-absorbed as they were in their pursuit of a degree, but the election was coming up in November, and the get-out-the-vote drives had been active in stirring their attention to the various races.

"Well Senator, welcome to University of Illinois". The crowd roared again at the mention of their school. "I-L-L...", Tucker started.

"I-N-I" the Senator replied, and the crowd cheered again. "Go Illini!"

"Hello Senator. Welcome to the group."

"Is this a fundraiser?", the Senator asked - looking around the room. "Doesn't seem like anyone here has any money. How much have we made?"

"Senator, it's not all about money. This is your chance to meet your voters."

"I have to meet them? That seems a little uncalled for. I'm a Senator."

Tucker was scanning the crowd as he got the banter going with Senator FlushPockets. It took a moment to get the rythym of the back and forth with the projected voice. Though he had walked across the lecture platform with his wireless mike, he had not lost sight of, or focus on, his heckler target. He was also mentally cataloguing the rest of the room in the uncomfortable lecture hall seats. Fraternity guys in groups, paired up with their sister sororities. Immaculately dressed cute co-eds looking semi-comfortable with the various states of inebriation of their dates for the evening. They were half paying attention to Tucker, half checking their texts on their smartphones. Some were there as couples, some part of a wide circle of group dates which had become the norm in their generation. Behind them a few rows were the dorm guys and girls in jeans and t-shirts or grunge or emo attire, looking like laundry day was still a few days away. Teaching assistants, a few full professors, and some athletes filled out the room.

Tucker completed his rapid scan of the room by noting the two well-dressed twenty-somethings in button-down shirts and ties in the top row by the exit looking out-of-place and pre-occupied as they worked their Blackberries and laptops. If you're going to rely on observational humor, you have to observe. And quickly process those observations. And react, turning it quickly to humor. Scan done in an eye-blink, back to the humor.

"So, Senator. Do you really think you're going to get re-elected this year? They say there's an electoral tsunami brewing with the voters this year?"

Tucker moved his fingers inside the puppet to give Senator FlushPockets an imperious look.
 "Frankly, there is no question about my re-election. I am, after all, a servant of the people and am grateful to have served this great nation of ours and this wonderful state for the last five decades."

"Five decades?" Tucker asked.

"Dude, get a real job!" Ah, the heckler hadn't passed out yet and was an equal opportunity insulter. Tucker had worked his way back across the platform and was lined up in close proximity to the young man, his now-horrified date on one side, and a distracted-looking guy on the other side with a Greek-lettered sweatshirt that Tucker recognized as high-grade-average engineering frat that he had been asked to join a long long time ago.

"Son, please tell me that you don't vote", Tucker said pointedly.

"Wait just a minute there, Tucker!”, said the puppet voice. “Let's not be discouraging the voters now. I need them all tomorrow."

"Yeah! I vote."

"Seriously, son" said the Senator, arching his pinewood eyebrows skeptically at Beta. "You don't really vote do you?"

"I vote. Probably. I'm voting your ass out. Probably." Beta wasn't sounding so sure now.

"Hmm. Donate first. They'll be passing a bucket in a minute now."

"Senator" Tucker said, pointing the Senator's head back to look at him. "Is it always about money with you guys?"

"Well, of course it is. I don't get elected through the good will of the voters."

"Of course not"

"And you certainly don't have any money I'm guessing, since you're playing a B-circuit gig at a university on a Monday night".

"Well..." But he had lost the attention of the Senator, who had swiveled back to look at Beta's sorority-girl date.

"And what about you, darling", Tucker said for the Senator - turning on his famous Senatorial charm. "You look like your daddy's got money? How about a generous donation to my meager little effort to represent this fine state in Washington D.C.? $20,000 will get you into the Liberty Club and get you a private dinner with yours truly where we can discuss matters of state and whatnot..."

"Senator!", Tucker exclaimed - leaving the Senator's head leering at Miss Kappa. "Behave".

"Don't bother me young man. I'm having a perfectly appropriate conversation with this lovely young lady about relieving her of the burden of her father's ill-gotten gains for a noble purpose. My re-election."

It was Tucker's turn to address Miss Kappa. "Please tell me that you are going to vote, and that you're going to cancel Beta here out tomorrow." Beta looked sharply at his date and started in on her and how she would not dare to vote differently than him like it was suddenly an important thing to him. She was demurring. She didn't come to a comedy show to debate voting with her boyfriend.

Satisfied that he had begun the process of splitting up Beta and his no-longer-laughing date, Tucker moved to amplify the pain to his new rival by addressing the guy on the other side of him. It bothered Tucker that he wasn't paying attention to the show.

The Senator was already ahead of him. Looking at Tucker, the Senator said "How about brain-boy there. You think he knows Beta?"

No reaction. Beta's antics had broken through his distraction, and he hadn't heard the Senator either.

Tucker leaned down into the young man's sight line. "Hey buddy. What's your name?"

"Steve", he said looking up. Charles Steven, actually. But he went by Steve.

"What's the deal? You here with Beta?"

"Yeah. We used to be roommates in the dorms."

"Really? Beta, what do you study?", Tucker asked.

"Football! Well, I play football. I’m majoring in communications."

"And you have a gift for it, we've seen", said Senator Flushpockets. "Would you ask people to vote for me tomorrow?"

"Alright, Senator. We get it. You need votes." Tucker ping-ponged back to the ex-roomie, to see if he could break through the distraction.

"How about you roomie. What do you study?"

Steve answered, but wasn't into it. "Computer Engineering. Cryptography minor."

"Code-breaking? Do you think you can crack the mystery of Beta here?" Tucker got a fair laugh from the crowd on that one, but he could tell he needed to move on and get back to his bits. It was time for the second act to come out.

"Say goodnight to these fine folks, Senator".

The Senator took his cue to depart back into the suitcase, but with one last pitch.

"Goodnight you fine people of Illinois. Don't forget to study. Most importantly, don't forget to donate to my campaign. And, oh yeah, don't forget to vote in November." With a diminshing voice as he was going back into suitcase "...except for you there, Beta."

Tucker finished his set with a flair, working his way quickly to his most popular puppet in these campus shows -  Roscoe the Stoner. Pot jokes worked easily with this crowd, and with a referendum on the ballot this year to legalize small quantities he had a twofer with an election tie-in. Perfect for a news junkie like Tucker. He was pulling laughs easily with bong jokes - just that word was funny - and jokes about getting the munchies. Many in crowd could relate this time of night. Some in the back row were even partaking as the show went along. He could smell it.

"All right Roscoe, we've got to call it a night my friend. Say good night to the folks."

"Later dudes. Peace and love and stuff. Go roll some big fatties. Hey Tucker?"

"Yeah Roscoe"

"Please tell me that Beta is not going to vote." The crowd roared.

"Goodnight everyone. Give it up for the queen of Birmingham Alabama - Miss Courtney Rae Montgomery."

And Tucker was off to the wings to the sound of his second-to-last ovation for this tour season.

Chapter One

Tucker sensed the early darkness settling in before he actually openened his eyes, and a momentary panic set in. Was he late to the show? Instantly the familiar panic that plagued him often on the road set in. Being late was for showtime was unforgivable for a professional.

His clouded eyes searched for the glowing dial of an alarm clock somewhere in the room. He hoped he had remembered to set it before he laid down for a nap. He didn't always. Scanning the room, he settled on a red number with two dots on the nightstand. One dot for PM. One dot for alarm on. Good. And it was five minutes until the time he had set it for. Better. Five more minutes. Could he sleep for five minutes? He wanted to try, as unlikely as it was.

Still, the room seemed inordinately dark for this time of year. Wasn't it brighter a just a couple of days ago? Wasn't he used to waking from these afternoon naps in the daylight? Daylight...Ah, yes. It was Fall now, his foggy brain was trying to tell him. He would have to change his clocks soon. Which way did it go? Spring back, fall ahead? Or was it the other way around. He didn't have anyone around to ask, and so he guessed as best as he could.  Fall back. Fall back? Yes, fall back.  And fall back to sleep...Buzzzzzz! Damn, five minutes went fast when you really wanted it to last for an hour. He wanted to hit snooze and get nine more minutes of sleep. But, he knew it would be fitful sleep at best, and he was in fact a professional. Get up, he told himself. Get yourself together. Get to the show.

Tucker forced himself into a sitting position on the bed and stretched a little as he tried to orient himself to the room. This was always the difficult part for him on the road. Where was he? What was the layout of this room? What side of the bed was the bathroom on? Was there anything to trip over on the way there? He had slept in so many different rooms in the last few months that disorientation was a familiar feeling. Comforting even, if it could be so.

Sitting, but not yet moving. As he wiped the crust from the corner of his eyes, he let his mind wander to the blur that the Summer had been, extending on in to the Fall. He’d been in a new city almost every night. Campus towns, mostly, all looking the same after a while. Quads to walk around during the afternoons, full of kids skipping class to sprawl out across the grass to read or flip a frisbee or football around. Amazing campus architecture to explore with his lens and get his shutterbugging fix. Bookstore cafes to catch some free wi-fi in around the used textbooks to blow a couple of hours surfing the web for social networking, blogging, or hitting the news forums for his version of fun - newsjunkie debates in the virtual world. Ivy covered classroom buildings that reminded him of the hours he had spent in classrooms a lifetime ago. Eventually, as night rolled around, he would invariably hook back up with his three coworkers again onstage in a theater or large lecture hall to dazzle the crowds again with their wit.

He had a ritual that he had developed over the many nights in hotel rooms to find his will to move. Feel around under the covers. Find the remote. Turn on the TV. Scan to a news channel to hear a voice. Use the sudden unbearably bright light of the TV to scout your way to the bathroom. Exert your will to stand up and move. Find the small wrapped soap and the tiny bottle of shampoo and get showered. Groom and dress. Leave, looking back to remember the number on the door that night so that you could come back to the right room in the early morning hours after the show. What room number of what floor of what budget hotel was he in tonight? Remembering that night after night, that was a trick.

He looked and felt around in the covers and found the remote and pointed it at...

His TV. His widescreen TV. Not a generic 25" GE TV with scuffmarks. His familiar big LCD with the picture-in-a-picture that took a few seconds to warm up and come on. Ah, that did the trick. Now he was awake. Now Tucker knew where he was.

He was home, in his own apartment, and not in a hotel room. And he knew what that meant. If he didn't get up and get moving he would be late for the last show of the tour.