THE MERE TOUCH OF COLD PHILOSOPHY
I entered 817 Fifth Avenue with nobody stopping me. I guess I was considered an official guest of the top-floor residents. However, I was still being watched.
And I was expected. A key had been inserted into the lock next to the top floor button. The button lit up readily under my touch.
When I reached the top, the doors opened and Crown was standing in front of me. His hands were partly clenched, not tightly enough yet to make fists. He looked at me as if he had made a decision.
I lifted a finger and said, "Not yet."
Crown's head jerked back one inch. It was the first real sign of surprise I had ever seen from him.
"Wait for it." Then I edged around his large body and headed for Bradbury's front door. I could feel Crown watching me, but with less force than before. I had him confused. Good.
The door wasn't locked, and I didn't bother to knock. I entered and found Bradbury speaking on his old-fashioned telephone. He glanced at me, then turned back to the phone.
"Then we'll meet at our regular spot...Very well." He hung up, then rubbed his eyes. I wondered how a man could keep on living under so much weariness.
"Your promise doesn't count for much," I told him.
He lowered his hand. "Joe Maxwell wasn't living in the Tunnels," he said. "He was a District Attorney. He was investigating me."
"So you did authorize the hit on him."
"No. I didn't."
"Crown was acting on his own again?"
"He did it to show me that he doesn't accept me as a leader. And I may not be for much longer." He pointed at the phone. "That was one of the Nobles. They're the, uh, ruling body of the High Tower. They're meeting here in the city."
"To remove me from my position. To anoint someone else The Unseen King."
"So it's a coup."
"They won't kill me. I have that much privilege. But I'll be shuffled off somewhere. Nobody will be left to protect you or the Tunnels."
"Crown is undoubtedly helping the coup."
"Oh, yes. In fact, he's the main weapon."
"Do the Nobles know who my father is?"
"They do. After seeing you with Diana Bennett, Crown did a background check on her. He found out that she was the one who shot Gabriel. It wasn't too hard to conclude who you are and where you came from. And the Nobles find that intimidating."
"Well, if Russ Garner could have been considered a threat, then..."
"Dammit, Jacob, it's not just about you!" Bradbury's burst of anger closed my mouth. He took a second to calm himself, then asked, "What does the High Tower need in order to achieve its goals?"
"Well," I said, "it needs certain places to where you can retreat. You need to know when..."
I stopped talking. Bradbury nodded at my look of realization. "The Tower has the best intelligence network in the world," he said, "but it can't predict a disaster like 9/11 to the exact day."
"The Tower is worried that I'll take Alexandra away," I said to myself.
"To the Tunnels," Bradbury added. "The world you have down there...it's an alternative for Alexandra. They don't want her tempted by it."
"Would it mean anything that we agreed never to see each other again?"
"No. And, frankly, I don't think you two will stand by that agreement."
I looked at the door to Alexandra's room. "Is she there?"
"No. Crown has her...tucked away somewhere for the moment."
"Good." I turned back to Bradbury. "I don't want her to see what's going to happen."
Bradbury frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Tell me -- if somebody wanted to remove Crown from his job, what would he have to do?"
"No less than kill him."
"Then I'll do that."
"Young man, if it were that easy, I would do it myself. But nobody is good enough to..."
"I know a way."
Bradbury stared at me for a long time, evaluating me, measuring to see if I could serve as an advantage for him. Of course, he had been doing that from the beginning.
Then he said, "What do you need from me?"
"I need a level playing field. No interference. Crown and I with the same weapons."
"Well, we do have a ritual for that. It's called the Purifier."
"If someone wishes to challenge Crown over some matter, then the two of them can fight to the death. A few have called Crown into the Purifier. I don't need to tell you of the results."
"How do you set this up?"
"You do it. And this meeting of the Nobles will be the opportune place for it."
"Fine with me."
Bradbury nodded, then looked down at his gleaming shoes. "I wonder if he's right."
"Crown. He thinks I'm weak. Maybe I am. Some part of me wants you to take Alexandra away from the Tower." He raised his eyes toward me. "I can make her safe, but you can give her joy."
I said nothing. Bradbury checked his watch. "Well, it's time to get going."
We left the apartment. Crown was waiting for us. He rode with us in the elevator.
I watched Crown and Bradbury. If you hadn't known their story, you would have never guessed that the man with the colorless eyes was threatening the man in the expensive suit. Crown regarded Bradbury without the slightest hint of malice. In fact, Crown was still ready to defend him from any attack. Until there was a formal transfer of power, Bradbury was still the Unseen King.
However, he still seemed slightly puzzled about me. What was I doing here? What did I have planned?
The answer was simple. I was here to die.
The Nobles of the High Tower convened at a big loft in midtown. The loft was familar -- at least, from the outside. I remembered passing by a building several times and noting the curtains drawn over the top floor windows. I had vaguely wondered who owned that space. Now I knew.
There was more space than furniture in the loft. At the center was a long curved table with nine chairs. The four on the left and the four on the right were evenly spaced from each other. The center chair was given more room. A phone just like the one in Bradbury's apartment lay before the center chair. Six square iron pillars stood near the edges of the loft, surrounding the table and bracing the ceiling. Add a few fluorescent lights to the scene and there you had the meeting place of the world's most secret organization.
The Nobles were already there when Bradbury, Crown and I arrived. As I entered the loft my intuition barked. There was something about one of the pillars. Could it be...
No, I couldn't think about that. I had to concentrate on the Nobles.
I recognized a few people among the Nobles, mainly the Americans. A United States Senator sat at the table. I also saw a man who owned one of the world's biggest software companies. I also recognized a man of Arabic descent. I couldn't place his face at first, then I remembered a news photo. It had been taken at a meeting of leaders from Middle Eastern nations. This Noble had been seated in the background, watching everybody.
I didn't recognize the identity of the others, but their skin colors spoke of a wide range of countries. Six were men, two were women. They all wore nice, clean clothing. And they were looking hard at Bradbury and me.
When we reached the space directly in front of the table, Bradbury pressed me slightly on the shoulder. Wait here, the touch said. I did.
Crown stood at a spot next to the left side of the table. That's where the Billionaire and the Senator sat.
Bradbury walked to the center chair. He hadn't lost his tired look, but he did have the solid appearance of a rock being struck by waves. Again, if you had just seen him, you wouldn't have known that he was a man about to lose all of his power. When he said "Please stand," everybody did.
From the center spot Bradbury began to recite words he had obviously spoken a thousand times. "The world is sick," he said. "The world is dying. We cannot save the world."
"We can only save ourselves," the Nobles said.
"This is our refuge. We will protect it through any means necessary."
"We will strike down all trespassers. We will scourge our enemies." The Senator glanced at me when the Nobles said that.
"We shall live. Life is its own reward."
"We worship life." Spoken in that enclosed loft and with those grim voices, those words never sounded less honest.
"You may be seated," Bradbury said. He and the Nobles sat down. "Now," Bradbury continued in a mild voice, "I understand that there are some objections to how I'm conducting my office."
"We object to him," the Senator declared and pointed a finger at me. "What is he doing here?"
"If he is the topic of discussion," Bradbury replied, "then why shouldn't he be here?"
"He should be dead. There should be no discussion about that."
"This young man poses no threat to us. If anything, it's in his interest to leave us alone."
"I'm talking about our interests," the Senator snapped. "He knows about the High Tower. Get rid of him."
"Murder does not end a problem." Bradbury's voice had a sliver of iron now. "It was murder which led him to us in the first place -- an assassination which was not authorized by me or any of the Nobles."
"There was a leak. Crown did his job and sealed it up." He nodded his approval at Crown. The man with colorless eyes nodded slightly in return. I realized that the Senator was the one leading the coup, and Crown was his main weapon.
"Then we allow Crown to do as he pleases?" Bradbury asked. "He no longer answers to any of us?"
"I would be afraid of that," a woman with a German accent replied, "if Crown ever did anything which was not in our interest. Perhaps it was unnecessary to kill this book dealer, but I would prefer that our head of security favor overcaution."
"I agree," a Hispanic man said. "Who really knows how far this book dealer could have..."
Everybody looked at me. "His name was Russ Garner," I told them. "And Crown just killed a man named Joe Maxwell. Remember those names."
Cold eyes informed me that they had no wish to know their victims' names. I had just dug my grave a little deeper, but I had a reason not to give a damn.
"In any case," the Hispanic man said slowly, "we shall strike down all trespassers, right?"
"I disagree," a Chinese man said. "At least, on the matter of...Mister Garner. I've read Crown's report and believe that he ordered an assassination prematurely." He looked at Crown. "In the future you should let one of us review such plans before you implement them."
Crown nodded, knowing that he didn't have to do squat.
"However, what's done is done. And now we have to deal with...this unusual and extraordinary young man." He motioned toward me, but didn't really see me. I was like a photo rather than a real person to him. "He seems very much like a threat."
"I talked with Jacob," Bradbury said. Thanks for using my name, Eddie. "He knows the risk of a confrontation with us. He knows that we can kill him and his loved ones."
"You mean, his damn lion-dad," the Senator grumbled. "Oh, we know about Vincent, even though you failed to tell us about that." He glared at me. "Plan to follow in your father's steps? Plan to kill anyone?"
"It kind of crossed my mind," I drawled. The Senator's face reddened with anger.
"Uh, it's not really his origins that I'm worried about," the Billionaire said, then turned to Bradbury. "It's this...relationship he has with your daughter."
A dark-skinned man nodded. "Precisely," he said with an African accent. "What are his intentions toward her?"
The Senator snorted. "I think we know what his damn intentions are. Alexandra is a valuable resource for the Tower -- maybe our most valuable one. Are we just going to lose her to some punk who lives in the sewers?"
"They're called the Tunnels," I said, "not the sewers. And she's not yours to.."
The Senator leapt to his feet and shouted, "If you say one more word, I'll..."
"What? Have a heart attack?"
The Senator spun his head toward Crown, silently demanding that Crown be the instrument of his rage. Crown shook his head. Not yet. Still some formalities to go through.
As the Senator forced himself to sit, the Billionaire cleared his throat and said, "All of our actions...all of our plans and decisions are focused on one question -- do we feel safe? So who in this room makes us feel the most safe and who makes us feel the least safe?"
There it was. The Nobles could only give one answer to that question. Very soon Bradbury would be deposed, I would be dead and the Tunnels would be under siege.
So I gave them an answer. "He makes you feel the safest," I said while pointing at Crown.
Everybody except Bradbury looked at me in confusion.
"I don't blame you," I said. "Or, at least, if you're going to look at the world the way you do, then Crown is the one you want to side with."
I faced Crown as I continued, "If I were being protected by this man, I would feel like the safest person in the world." He looked back at me, still puzzled. Not concerned, just puzzled.
"At least," I said, "that's what I would feel. But is it true? Could he really protect you from me? I say -- let's find out." I paused, then said, "I call him into the Purifier."
The Nobles quickly turned to Bradbury. He stood up with no hurry and declared, "A challenge has been made. Crown, do you accept it?"
Crown shrugged. He still didn't get what I was doing, but there was nothing to fear. He had already seen the extent of my fighting skills. And I wouldn't reach a window this time.
"Then step forward, Jacob."
I walked toward the center of the table. Eyes followed me, pondering any hidden scheme on my part.
Bradbury opened a long drawer in the table and pulled out a case. He set it on the table. He opened it.
Two polished swords with golden handles rested in the case. "Chose one," Bradbury said.
I looked up at Bradbury and whispered, "This is the Purifier? Pretty fancy name for a swordfight."
He shrugged. I looked down at the case. I could tell each sword was exactly alike, so I just picked the one on the right.
"Step back," Bradbury told me. I returned to the spot where I had previously stood.
"Step forward, Crown." Crown walked up to Bradbury, still no sign that one of them was destroying the other.
"Remove your weapons," Crown ordered. Crown pulled out a gun, brass knuckles, a small can of mace and a familiar-looking knife. They all had been as neatly stored on his self as a penny at the bottom of a pocket. He really had been toying with me on that night.
After removing his personal weapons, Crown took the remaining sword. He returned to the Senator's side. The Senator smirked at me.
Crown shut the case, then sat down. If he had any doubt about my actions, he didn't show it. Of course, he didn't have anything to lose.
He said, "Please step back from the table and begin."
With our eyes fixed on each other, Crown and I moved a few steps away from the table. Only eight feet of air separated us.
The sword felt awkward in my hand. I had rarely used a weapon in my life and never a sword. Crown held his weapon as if he had been born with it.
Bradbury and the Nobles waited for us to start. Or, rather, for me to start. Crown could have waited all week for me to attack.
I raised my sword and held it like a baseball bat. Crown assumed a perfect fighting stance. My left shoulder throbbed. Crown looked to be in perfect health.
Faces poured from my memory -- Father, Grandfather, Diana, Mouse, Pascal, Jamie, Max, Dan, Laura, Lonnie, Russ, Joe, every Dweller, every Helper, every woman I had ever kissed, my mother, Alexan...