jovialbard

Short stories and other written works by jovialbard.

Monologue: Anyway

I can’t do this. No, you don’t understand, this, this, is terrifying to me. My hands are shaking, my voice is unsteady, I feel like my knees are about to go out. I can’t do this. I feel like that’s my mantra. “I’m stupid, I’m useless, I can’t do this.” I find myself saying it over and over again in my head. I just can’t stop myself. It just comes at me like some… evil voice in my ear. I’ve tried that positive affirmation crap but that voice in my head just tacks on “not” like a sarcastic valley girl from the 90s. And then it just starts back up. “I’m stupid, I’m useless, I can’t do this.” I’ve tried just smiling and saying positive things out loud, but all that has taught me is how to be fake, how to be insincere, how to lie about what I’m really feeling. That I’m stupid and useless and that I really cannot do this. No amount of fake positivity stops those thoughts from coming. The fact is, I don’t believe in myself. I don’t think that I can do this. And I just don’t think that’s something I can fight. “I’m stupid, I’m useless, I can’t do this.” That’s what I really believe. It just is. But, you know what? That’s ok. I can live with that. Lot’s of people are stupid, right? Most of the people on the planet are failures compared to their deepest aspirations and dreams. So now, instead of trying to fight it, I just add something of my own to it. “I’m stupid, I’m useless, I can’t do this. But I am going to do it anyway.” That’s my mantra now, because you can’t hide from your truth, but you can make a choice.

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On the Inevitable Failure of Keynesian Intervention

If you haven’t read my previous musings on economics, start here. I should reiterate that I am not a professional economist. What follows are my personal attempts to understand the world we live in. I am, as always, eager to learn and welcome any sincere and thoughtful critiques.

What is a bust? A simplified way to view a bust is as a monetary collapse. At the start of a bust there is an object that holds some perceived value. At the end of that bust the perceived value has been lost and with it the ability to use that value as a foundation for economic exchange. Has anything real changed? Are there less people with less skills or less stuff? No. Has anything real and physical been destroyed? No. The only thing lost is perceived value, essentially money. There is, however, a very real impact as a result, as a reduction in the money supply creates a contraction that debilitates economic exchange.

So what do we do about a bust, as a society? There are some who argue that we should do nothing. They argue that booms and busts are a natural part of the business cycle. This argument generally collapses to “don’t mess with nature”. Except that economics aren’t natural. Economics are built on a foundation of thousands of laws and conventions, on currency, debt, and many other technologies invented and implemented by humankind. Economics are an invention. If I may move forward assuming that our system of economics is an engineered technology, then there is an optimal response to driving that engineered system in a direction we, as humans, find preferable. While it’s possible that “do nothing” is the optimal response, it’s worth examining the alternatives.

The obvious response to a monetary collapse is monetary stimulation. This is a simplified description of the Keynesian approach to recession recovery. The government uses monetary policy to lower interest rates and make lending more appealing, which theoretically increases the current money supply in the form of credit. The government uses fiscal policy in the form of increased spending or reduced taxes, creating an inflationary effect to counter the deflationary effect caused by the monetary collapse. There’s a certain common sense to this, assuming you aren’t dealing with stagflation as seen in the 1970s, which isn’t a classic bust and warrants its own discussion. However, if we assume that my previous analysis is correct, and that the boom and bust cycle is the result of a natural flow of money supply from the markets of real goods and services to the investment sector, then how does this Keynesian approach hold up? In short, not well.

First let’s touch on monetary policy. The problem is that monetary policy is almost certainly neutral to the issue at hand. Does lowering nominal interest rates stimulate the economy? A majority of economists believe it does, but many also believe that it does not. Either way it does nothing to address the root cause of the boom and bust cycle. At best it is a temporary measure that stimulates the economy now at the expense of an equal and opposite economic contraction later, hopefully after the economy has recovered.

Next we turn our attention to fiscal policy. When the government increases spending it rarely does so without going into debt. Conventional wisdom says that “printing money” leads to hyperinflation, which is undeniably bad for the economy. However, when the government goes into debt, that debt, being debt, ultimately belongs to the investment sector. The additional spending adds money to the economy of goods and services, bolstering the share of the money supply present in that part of the economy, but eventually it must be paid back to the investment sector. The monetary flow hasn’t been reversed or halted, it’s only been diverted onto the shoulders of government to give the rest of the economy a temporary break. When the time comes to pay back that debt it is done through taxes. Taxing the investment sector is frowned upon by conventional wisdom, so those taxes must come from the rest of the economy. When the government finally goes about repaying that debt, it will quite literally be funneling money from the rest of the economy into the investment sector, completely reversing any benefit to the money supply that was gained by deficit spending in the first place. This growing imbalance in the money supply between the investment sector and the rest of the economy will inevitably lead to a further bust. The huge amount of debt held by governments is direct evidence for and an example of the massive imbalance in money supply that already exists between the investment sector and the rest of the economy.

The alternative method of stimulating the economy is to lower taxes. Conventional wisdom argues that these tax break should go to the wealthy, the job creators, the ones investing in the economy to help it grow. Which would make sense to a degree if there weren’t enough investors to invest in things. However, a bust isn’t caused by a shortage of investment. History shows that the wealthiest investors come out of a recession incredibly well. If my prior theory is correct then a bust is caused by is an overabundance of investment. A bust is the correction of that overabundance. Lowering taxes on investors is just another way to facilitate the flow of funds into the investment sector and set the stage for another boom and bust.

Ultimately, while Keynesian fiscal intervention works in the short term, it does absolutely nothing in the long term to address the flow of money into the investment sector and, in many ways, exacerbates the causes of the boom and bust cycles. If this analysis is correct, then our recovery from the 2008 recession through the use of Keynesian intervention is only setting the groundwork for another recession within the next 10 or 20 years. This, however, is not the fault of intervention. It is, rather, the fault of conventional wisdom.

Does that mean we should raise taxes and cut spending during a recession? Don’t be absurd. Correcting the deflationary effect makes sense, but we must question how conventional wisdom would have us do that.

Conventional wisdom says that the government shouldn’t “print money”, but why does it say that? Historical examples include Germany printing money during the Wiemar Republic to pay off its debts. This led to hyperinflation and strangled economic exchange. There are numerous other examples from history. However, these examples tend to have one thing in common. They were a desperate attempt to pull the Government out of debt. No, you can’t pay back a debt by printing money, that’s like trying to accelerate to the speed of light. The more you print the less what you’re printing is worth, and the more you have to print the next time. But we’re not talking about a frantic attempt to escape debt. We’re talking about a controlled stimulation of the economy. We’re talking about replacing collapsed money supply with new freshly printed money supply. This is a very different circumstance. An analogy for this approach is the corporation that issues new stocks as a way to raise capital to invest. A corporation that issues stocks to pay off debts is doomed, but a corporation that issues stocks to reinvest in their company is setting the stage for growth. Government can take the same approach. After all, the fallout from a bust is not a collapse of the means of production. No people were lost. No real engine of the economy was lost. The ability to grow and produce remains. An investment failed, the perception of value was lost, not the means of creating more value. Therefore, it seems absurd to think that a controlled investment in the economy would necessarily lead to immediate hyperinflation. It may lead to eventual inflation as the economy recovers, but that inflationary effect can be countered by balancing taxation with spending after the economy has recovered. As long as the government invests wisely in things that will grow the economy, infrastructure and education particularly come to mind, spending without borrowing makes about as much sense as a corporation issuing new stocks to invest in growth. That is, a lot of sense.

Conventional wisdom also says that when there is a bust we should lower taxes on investors so that they can invest in the economy. But, again, a bust is evidence of over investment. We don’t need more investment, we need to stimulate the economy of goods and services. That is done by lowering taxes on the middle class. Furthermore, a major bust is evidence that the taxation level on investment is not high enough. If the monetary flow imbalance is sufficient to facilitate a bust, then it must be corrected. Correcting it too much could choke investment, but keeping taxes as they are or lowering them is only setting the stage for more dramatic boom and bust cycles. However, in order to facilitate a temporary increase in the money supply the tax break on the working class must be larger than the tax hike on investment, or the tax hike on investment must be delayed.

There are certainly those that would reject all this nonsense about raising investment taxes. The succinct way to put the most common argument against taxes is: “It’s my money”. Taxing investments is bad because investors earned and deserve their money. Some people would read this article and argue that I’m promoting redistribution of wealth. Let me be clear, I’m not. As an engineered system, our economy has an ideal equilibrium point. There is a point at which investment taxes would be too high, discouraging investment, and there is a point at which investment taxes would be too low facilitating a loss of equilibrium in the money supply and a bleeding into the investment sector, causing booms and busts. I’m arguing that our current arrangement errs toward the latter, and that we should find the balance point between the two. If we knowingly establish conditions that do not result in equilibrium, then we are accepting a system that will not sustain a free market. We are, essentially, rejecting the free market as an ideal. However, the “it’s my money” argument isn’t interested in the economy as an engineered system. It’s about morality. Taxes are immoral. The only response to that argument is this: put your money where your mouth is. Do what Ayn Rand suggested; take all your money and go buy yourself a sovereign piece of land somewhere. It won’t be long before you find yourself living in a society that is neither democratic nor a free market. But, like the Amish, you’ll be living a life commensurate with your ‘moral values’. Good for you.

As someone who values the free market ideal, it is in my interest to examine economic systems and attempt to discern the conditions that best promote that ideal. The current conditions, the human engineered system of laws and taxes we live under, facilitates the unceasing flow of the money supply into the investment sector of the economy. Such circumstances simply do not facilitate a free market, they facilitate a collapse of the free market into an either monopolistic or recessionary state. It may be worth examining more deeply whether there is a different set of laws and assumptions that could facilitate a free market without relying on government correction via taxing the investment sector. However, for the time being it seems clear, given my analysis as I understand it, that the contemporary Keynesian approach to recessionary recovery is ultimately and inevitably counterproductive because it does not address the fundamental cause of the boom and bust cycle, namely the flow of the money supply into the investment sector. A superior approach to intervention must involve correcting that fundamental lack of equilibrium. Given the tools currently at our disposal, the best approach would seem to be to stimulate recovery by increasing investments that grow the economy, like infrastructure, education, and working class tax breaks without accruing significant debt while also increasing taxes on investment. 

Poison

Corrugated cement rumbled overhead as Charles sat with his back against a cold stone wall. He closed his eyes with a heavy breath and leaned his head back. His brow furrowed as he tried to narrow his thoughts to the quiet babbling of the river flowing past.

“Hey!”

Charles jumped to his feet, steadying himself against the wall, and looked toward the voice. His mouth moved wordlessly.

“Whoa. Hey. No, man, no worries. I didn’t mean to startle you. Just saying hi.” A disheveled man with a thick beard was standing in the sunlight beyond the overpass. “You can sit, it’s okay.”

Charles looked around for a moment, deciding, then settled back to the ground.

The stranger stood staring at him blankly from the sunlight. “Why you here?”

“I’m… uh… just sitting.”

“Yeah, right, pragmatist.” The stranger walked toward Charles and slid to the ground a few feet away. He took a quick swig from a brown bag.“I mean, why are you here? Why aren’t you driving in a car up there, or in a boat out there, or sitting at home with a pretty wife, two kids, and a dog? Why are you here? You know?”

They made eye contact for a moment, then Charles shook his head and shrugged. He thought about ignoring the stranger. He’d ignored people like this all his life. Then the pain in his chest flared and he found himself choking back tears. The stranger sat in silence for a moment, then offered the brown bag to Charles. Charles shook his head.

“It’s okay, you know? Don’t worry about it. I just talk. It’s what I do. You don’t have say anything.”

“No.” Charles took a breath. “I… I’m just… raw?” He smiled meekly at the ground.

“I hear you. I hear you.” The stranger rubbed his neck with one hand and raised his bag to his lips with the other.

Charles closed his eyes as words began to fall from his lips. “I was just scrolling through facebook. Just habit. I don’t even think about it. I just take out my phone and the next thing I know I’m scrolling through political bile, meaningless aphorisms, and… baby pictures.”

“Sure, yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like the internet is the scourge of modern life.”

“No. It isn’t.”

“Oh, okay. Sure, sure.”

Charles sat in silence for a moment, reaping thoughts long sown. “There was this one post. I’ve seen it before. A dozen times. One of those… meaningless aphorisms. It, uh, said something about not holding on to poisonous relationships. You know? Get rid of the people in your life that are holding you back, and don’t look back. Something like that. I don’t know why it stuck in my head. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. But I was sitting with my friends one day, guys I’d known my whole life, and I just got up and left. I walked out the door. I cut them out and I didn’t look back. I’d just had enough you know. It was just so… shallow. I don’t think any of them even really knew me or liked a damn thing about me. After all those years, what kind of friendship is that? How do you feel lonely around friends you’ve known your whole life? So I walked away.”

“Good for you.”

“Yeah.” Charles chuckled absently. “Then, a few weeks later I was having dinner with my parents. I was talking about how I want to get my act together, improve myself, make something of my life. My mom looked at me and said ‘about time’. I stood up right then, I looked at her, I said ‘enough, mother’, and I walked out the door. I’ve been dodging emails and phone calls since.”

“Yeah, you know if that’s what you have to do. I feel you on the parent issues, man.”

“Yeah?”

“My dad beat my mom, my mom took it out on us. You know. Classic story I guess. I thought about running away but I wanted to stick around for my sister. Guess that didn’t come to much though. She died from an overdose.”

“Shit.”

“That’s life.”

Charles paused for a moment, unsure what to say.

“You know, I’ve made peace with it. Don’t worry about it. Tell me your story. I like to listen. Almost as much as I like to talk, right?” He laughed without reservation.

“Not much else to say… I just… I just felt so lonely.”

“Yeah, you don’t feel less lonely by cutting people out of your life. No offense, though, just saying.”

“No. You’re right… I came to the same conclusion. That’s when I realized something. When you start to cut the poison out of your life, and you keep cutting and cutting and cutting, and every relationship you find yourself in feels empty, you start to think that maybe…” Charles swallowed the remnants of his pride. “Well… I set out to cut the poison from my life, and along the way, I realized that the poison was me.” Charles stared at the ripples in the water rolling past. “So, I did it. I cut the poison from my life. I removed myself from every relationship. My friendships. My parents. My… wife and children. They’re all better off without me.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Then the stranger smiled. “Oh, I get it. This is one of those… monologues, right?”

“What?”

“A monologue, like from a play. You’re rehearsing, right? It’s good!”

“No… I’m telling you my story… I…”

“Really? Are you sure? I only know two types of people in this world who talk to themselves for two minutes straight all self-indulgent like that, and you don’t seem like a crazy person.”

Charles laughed with the stranger. Then they sat in silence for a moment as the stranger took another drink. “I’m sorry for being ‘self-indulgent’, I just, don’t have anyone to talk to.” Charles said.

“Eh, don’t worry about it man. I was just messing with you. I have a twisted sense of humor or something.” The stranger looked at Charles for a moment. “Here.” He offered the brown bag to Charles.

“No, I don’t drink.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you should start. It’ll clear your head.”

“Alcohol doesn’t clear your head, it dulls your thoughts.”

“Yeah, exactly. Thoughts are what you have to clear. Thoughts are crazy. It was a thought that made you think you were poison. Fuck that thought.” He offered Charles the bag for the third time.

Charles hesitated. He looked down at his hands. He reached for the bag and paused. Then he nodded and said. “No. Thank you. It’s just… not who I am.”

“Ever thought maybe you should be someone else?”

Charles laughed. “I can’t.” He gave a helpless shrug. “Try as I might, for better or worse, I am who I am. Everything I left behind, that was all me trying to be someone other than myself. Even if I’m the worst person I know, I don’t have any other choice but to be that person.”

“Ah, fatalist. I get that. I wouldn’t be here either if I could be someone other than me. This is me.” The stranger held up the brown bag in salute and took a heavy swallow. They sat in silence for a heavy moment, then the stranger stood. “Anyway, thanks for your story, I should get going, you know. Things to do… I guess.” He laughed.

“Yeah. Things to do.” Charles said, nodding and looking down.

The stranger smiled briefly, then turned and walked back toward the light.

Charles closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cold stone wall.

After a time he opened his eyes and looked down at his phone. After confirming a transfer of funds he stood, brushed off his pants, and walked toward the bus to work.

On the Role and Effect of Investment on Economies

Economies exist to solve one simple problem. Sometimes an individual has a surplus of one thing and a need for another. That’s the essence of it.

The simplest solution to this problem is through direct trade. However, direct trade isn’t the best way to resolve complex issues of supply and demand. The introduction of currency allows for more complex exchange interactions.

There is a different type of surplus and need that mere exchange, whether through barter or currency, cannot help to resolve. That is when the surplus is potential. The only way to trade someone a surplus of potential is to wait until that potential is actualized. This is where investment is introduced into an economy. An investor trades a surplus of resources now for some portion of the resources that exist when the potential is actualized. This facilitates a more vibrant economy by making it easier for new ideas to flourish.

When a particular sector of the economy flourishes it tends to profit above the normal living expenses of those in that economy. Essentially there is money coming out of the rest of the economy and accumulating in the profitable part of the economy. Part of those profits undoubtedly go toward improving quality of life. Such quality of life improvements are expenses that are thus recirculated through the rest of the economy. Another portion go toward investments. Investments that increase productivity are, again, expenses that circulate through the rest of the economy. Other investments may be made toward other sectors of the economy. So the majority of the money supply that pools in a profitable sector of the economy will, one way or another, eventually recirculate to the rest of the economy.

As an aside, I won’t attempt to moralize about whether these profits and localized gains in quality of life are ‘good’ or ‘evil’. That’s not what this essay is about. This essay is about mechanics, so I’ll save any discussion of morality for another day.

However, the picture is very different when looking at the investment sector of the economy. It doesn’t quite behave the same way, or rather, it does but with different results. When investors are successful it means they are profiting from their investments. These profits mean that some portion of the available money supply is flowing into the investment sector and accumulating there. Certainly a portion of these investments improve the quality of life of those employed by the investment sector. So there’s nothing different about that, but what happens to the rest of the profits? And surely there will be additional profits, what portion of investors is satisfied just earning enough to live on? Can it be invested in productivity? Not really. The investment sector doesn’t produce anything. Rather, the means of production for an investor is money. They can hire employees, but that’s essentially just an investment in another investor, it doesn’t employ anyone or require purchasing anything outside the sector of investment. So what do they do with the profits? Just like a profitable trader in goods and services they can invest the surplus. That is, the surplus goes into the investment sector… where it already was…

So essentially… as long as the investment sector is profitable on balance money will be flowing into the investment sector of the economy, but how does it flow out? How does it recirculate? You could say the loans that the investment sector provides to other sectors of the economy allows it to recirculate, but that isn’t really true. That money still belongs to the investment sector, it’s just temporarily being utilized by other sectors of the economy, they have to give it back at some point. The portion of the money supply owned by the investment sector hasn’t decreased at all. In fact, it has likely increased in the form of interest or shared profit.

Should this trend continue, with the money supply naturally flowing into the investment sector without ever flowing out, what happens to the sectors of the economy that produce goods and provide services? How can their share of the money supply do anything but shrink? How can they do anything but become increasingly dependent on loans from the investment sector? And as they become more and more dependent on loans, as their balance books look worse and worse, wouldn’t the investment sector itself start looking like the most tempting place to invest? Over time the idea of investing in investment would become more and more appealing. That’s where the winners are. As this happens less and less available money exists in the various sectors of real goods and services. The localized inflation of the money supply in the investment sector and deflation of the money supply in the rest of the economy would only accumulate. How could the cycle possibly end?

There is one way for the accumulation to end, for the money to flow back out of the investment sector: Failed investments. When an investor gives money to some venture without getting any back, that money has left the investment sector. The person engaging in the venture has spent it, more than likely on other goods and services. That money is now flowing through the economy of goods and services. The investor has no way to reach that money except to demand it from the venture they invested in. If that venture has failed to profit then it cannot get the money back. The investor walks away with less than he started but the economy of real goods and services now has money that it didn’t have before. Does that sound like a good thing? It shouldn’t. Why? Because that’s an investor whose ability to serve their vital role in the economy has been diminished. They are less able to actualize potential. When this happens dramatically we call it a bust. The investment sector, during a bust, is essentially suffering massive deflation. The whole economy suffers an inability to actualize potential and productivity temporarily grinds to a halt. In time the investment sector stabilizes. As it does it begins to serve it’s incredibly vital purpose in actualizing potential. As it does so more and more successfully it begins to slowly consume the available money supply. Boom, bust, boom, bust. There is no guarantee when the bust will happen, because, strictly speaking, it doesn’t have to happen. If the investment sector of the economy contented itself with owning the entire money supply it could continue to bankroll the rest of the economy with loans that can never really be paid off. Eventually, however, someone’s going to ask for their money back, and that’s when all the dominoes fall.

So is the cycle of boom and bust an inevitability, aside from the collapse of market principles altogether? I don’t see how it could be anything but inevitable without another way for money to flow out of the investment sector. Unless someone can enlighten me as to an alternative, it seems like an inescapable aspect of our current implementation of capitalism. Except… there is another way for money to leave the investment sector. Taxes. Taxes are often despised by capitalists because they have a deflationary effect on a market. Having money flow out of a market is generally not a good thing. However, that is precisely the nature of the problem with the investment market that my analysis here reveals. Unless my analysis is wrong then the only thing that can stop the inevitable inflation of the investment market ultimately resulting in massive busts is a complimentary deflationary effect. Taxes. Taxes are the salvation of capitalism.

I’m not suggesting the government ‘redistribute wealth’ out of some sense of egalitarianism. Nor have I mentioned anything about ‘means of production’. This isn’t a Marxist or Humanitarian argument. This is an economic argument. This whole analysis started with a discussion of how important investment is to the effective functioning of an economy. I have made no attempt to demonize capitalists. I have not suggested that this boom and bust cycle is the result of greed or ill intentions. Even if I were to take a Marxist perspective I would argue that investment is it’s own form of labor and should be respected as such. It is simply the case that an investor’s tools are money, his skills are business sense, and his product is actualized potential. A valuable commodity to be sure. However, it seems to be an inescapable truth of our contemporary system of capitalism that it’s very nature is to implode. That statement does not undermine the power of capitalism to match supply with demand. That statement does not suggest that there is another existing system that is better. It is possible that there is a better alternative than our contemporary understanding and implementation of capitalism, that we are missing something, or making a wrong assumption somewhere, but that is a discussion for another day. What remains from this analysis is that the only means of contemporary capitalism to not destroy itself is taxes. The only way to ensure stability is taxes. Taxes, given our contemporary understanding and utilization of capitalism are an essential good necessary for the smooth functioning of our society and our economy. Without taxes the markets for real goods and services will invariable suffocate in debt and the market for investment will invariable inflate and inflate until it implodes. This is not a condemnation of capitalism, it is a statement of fact. Unless I’m missing something vital, taxes are the salvation of capitalism for its own sake, not a necessary evil for ours.

Monologue: It Gets Better

Delivered to a child who’s having a bad day.

Hey, look, you’ve probably heard this before, but, it get’s better you know? Some day, you’ll grow up, and things will start to go right for a change. You’ll find people who love you for who you are and… things won’t be so hard… as they are now. When? Could be next year. Could be ten. Might even be thirty. Ha. I don’t know when… But that’s what they say right? It gets better. I mean, it got better for them right? The people saying that… They’re successful. People look up to them, you know. People listen when they talk. They have adoring fans and bright vibrant personalities. Things got better for them… and sure not everyone can be famous, or successful, or loved. But, no, I’m sorry. I’m getting off message. It gets better. Just do what I did when I was your age. Make a promise to yourself. Make a promise that you’ll never forget how much you hated this, that you’ll never forget how bad it was. Then, when you rise above it, you’ll look back… and wonder why you thought it was so damn bad. I mean seriously. I’m so freaking broken. I can’t do anything right! It’s like life is just this series of soul sucking failures. What the hell is the point! Like one damn thing. Can I just do one damn thing right? For once in my life! Jesus Chr….y me a river. I’m sorry. Um.  You know. Uh. It’ll… get better for you. You have… like your whole life ahead of you. Go live it. Just… live the crap out of that life. Sorry, language.

The Girl Who Sang to God

She sat in the corner booth staring into the darkness at the bottom of her bottle. Her hair curled around the contours of her face, tumbling to her long neck. Her lips were open softly, moving slowly as if she were singing a song to herself or whispering secrets into the bottom of the bottle. She looked up at the light above her for a moment, her hair flowing down her back as she paused her mumbling. Her eyes looked sad, but sad beyond the threshold of suffering. Sad like acceptance.

He knew that look.

Her eyes closed, drinking in the light on her face, then her head fell slowly back to the bottle, her hair tumbling back across her face.

He stood. He sat back down. He stood again. He sat back down and turned toward the bar, sipping his beer. He turned back and paused for a moment. Then he realized he was standing at her booth. He waved.

No, he didn’t say anything, he really just waved.

She looked at him and her brow furrowed with confusion. She didn’t say anything though, or move. She just furrowed at him. Even a ‘fuck off’ would have been useful in some way, at least then he would know what to do.

He looked around, hoping for a wingman that didn’t exist to break the ice or something. This is awkward. He thought. Then he looked at her again. Scratched his neck and went back to the bar. Fucking introverts he thought. He took a long swig of his beer.

He watched her in the mirror of the bar. She looked at him, and then down at her cup, and then back at him. Then her eyes shifted ever so slightly to the right and found his eyes in the mirror. Like magnets they just stuck there for a moment, difficult to pull away. Then he looked down and broke a peanut.

When he looked up she was sitting next to him. He jumped a little and looked down, not sure what to say. “You’re a very awkward person” she said.

He looked at her. She wasn’t looking at him, just kind of staring forward. “Takes one to know one… I guess.” He said with a goofy smile that quickly fell to uncertainty.

She smiled, still not looking at him. “Did you…” She paused. “Were you going to say something back there? Were you trying to say something?”

He thought for a moment. “I guess not, or I probably would have.”

She smiled again. Her smiles were like waves, rising quickly and then crashing and slowly receding back into the ocean. That’s a pretty flowery metaphor he laughed to himself. She smiled again at his laugh. Another wave of joy receding into calm seas. He smiled back.

“I, uh, just noticed you were sitting alone and wondered if you needed company.” He said.

“Yeah, company would be nice.” She looked down at the bottle in her hands. She wasn’t drinking it, just looking down at it.

“What’s your name?” He asked, starting to loosen up a bit. This wasn’t so hard.

“Sybil.” She said.

There was a long silence. He tried to think what to say next. Nope, it was still hard.

She started humming a nameless tune to herself. “What’s your name.” She said suddenly, and looked a little embarrassed about it.

“Oh, uh, Richard. Richard Galloway.”

“Oh, like Dick.” She smiled.

“Uh, no, not like Dick. Not a fan of Dick. I mean, the name. Well, or the… oh god.” He looked down at his beer and shook his head. Idiot.

She actually laughed. “That’s funny, you’re funny. Sorry, I won’t call you Dick.”

He looked up again, she was staring forward again, not looking at him. He followed her eyes to see what she was so mesmerized by. Their eyes met again, in the mirror. She smiled at him. That’s weird. He thought, but a part of him liked it. It was easier to look at her. I kinda like weird. He decided.

***

The night air was crisp but perfumed with the subtle scent of freshly budding flowers. Sybil clung to her coat as they walked in silence. She mostly looked down as she walked, but seemed to turn and peer inquiringly into the darkness of each alley. Richard tried to think of something clever to say. “I… like your hair.”

“Oh?” She said, looking up at him for a brief moment and then tearing her eyes away quickly and mumbling to herself.

“Yeah, it’s, uh, pretty.” Pretty? Really? That’s the best you got? Richard thought.

“Thanks.”

“I don’t usually… I’m not good with, uh, women.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

Ouch.

“It’s okay, I’m not very good with men either.” She hastily added.

Richard smiled. “Yeah, I noticed.” He quipped, and then immediately regretted it.

She smiled and looked at him again. This time when their eyes met she didn’t look away. They stopped and stood on the sidewalk there for an endless moment. Her eyes seemed to grow as he looked at her. They expanded and filled the world. He saw galaxies spinning in her eyes. He watched them spin through time and space then fell deeper into a mass of blinding light crushing into claustrophobic darkness, into a void of everything. His head spun as the darkness condensed into a single infinite point and beyond it he could see…

He blinked. He took a step back. She looked at him with concern slathered thickly over her face. His mind was racing as he looked down at the sidewalk and watched dark dots forming randomly on it’s surface.

“It’s raining.” She said, and at that moment the black dots exploded into a wet sheen as water came pouring from the sky.

He looked at her again for a moment. Just standing there, wet in the rain. Then she smiled.

They ran for cover.

***

The door slammed behind them as they ducked into the narrow foyer of her row home apartment. Water dripped from their hair and soaked their clothes. Riched watched a drop fall from her chin, land on her chest, and leave a trail of wetness as it dribbled down her…

She laughed. “Wow, I am soaked.” Her smile stayed this time, warm and full.

He shook the water off his hands and ran them through his hair. “And you’re happy about that?” He couldn’t help but smile.

“It never rains on me.” She said.

“What?” He said. “You mean you never go out in the rain?”

She very nearly giggled “No, I mean whenever I go out it stops raining. I donno. Just lucky I guess.”

He laughed. “You are very weird.”

She stopped smiling.

He stopped smiling. “I’m sorry. I… uh… you’re not that weird.”

She looked down. “No, it’s okay, I am.”

“I…” He stood in awkward silence again.

She turned away from him and put a foot on the bottom step. She paused for a moment, then turned and looked up into his eyes again. “Will you… would you like to come up?” She looked up the stairs leading to her apartment.

He followed her gaze into the dark stairwell. He swallowed. He tried to find his voice. He knew he had it a second ago, if he could just remember where he put it. “Yes.”

She reached out and grabbed his hand. His eyes snapped to hers as a jolt of life shot through his arm and left him feeling dizzy. She stepped forward and pressed her rain drenched body against his, slowly lifting herself onto her toes.

His lips met hers and lingered for a moment. They parted and looked into each other’s eyes. Then she turned, paused, and led him by his hand into the darkness of the stairs.

***

Richard took off his coat as he stepped into the modest third floor studio apartment. Sybil closed the door behind them as he looked around the room, dimly lit by the lights of the city through the curtained windows.

“Spartan” he said, smiling.

Sybil stepped into the room and slipped off her coat, placing it over a lone chair at a small table. She took Richard’s coat and placed it on hers.

“Did you just move in?” Richard asked.

“Huh? No, I’ve lived here a while… What do you mean?”

“Oh, you just don’t have any pictures or decorations or anything.”

“Oh, yeah, no. I guess I just… I don’t…” Sybil struggled for a moment. “I guess I just never saw a point…”

He looked at her for a moment. “No, look, if you’re into the minimalist thing, then you’re into the minimalist thing. Who am I to tell you you should have more stuff, right?”

They stood in the ruddy dimness dripping.

He looked around again at the sparsely furnished apartment. He tried to find some hook, something to talk about. So you like food huh? He thought looking at the fridge. He shook his head.

She looked down, turned and walked to the window, looking out into the night.

He put a hand on the counter, watching the light from the rain pattered window dancing on the back of his hand. He wondered why she hadn’t turned the lights on. Then he heard a sound. High and melodic. It took him a moment to realize that she was humming to herself.

“Are you humming?” He asked smiling.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She said, looking down.

“No, no, it’s cool. What were you singing.”

“Nothing.”

“No, I wanna know what kind of music you’re into. Maybe you’re into some new band I haven’t heard of.”

“Yeah, something like that.” She laughed faintly.

He waited for her to elaborate.

“No, I was just singing to myself. It’s a bad habit. It wasn’t anything, like, real. You know.” She looked at him through the darkness.

“Oh.” He said.

They stood in the darkness for another long moment as he looked around the room.

“Maybe I should go, I…” Richard started awkwardly, moving toward his coat on the chair.

“No! You… don’t have to if you don’t want to. You can stay.”

Richard hesitated.

“I’d like it if you’d stay, Richard.” She said, stepping closer and reaching out for his hands.

Their fingers touched again and he felt himself step closer. Their lips met once more as her hands slid up his arms and her fingers ran through his hair.

***

Sybil woke as a line of bright light cut across the bed. She reached out with her hand to the pillow beside her. It was still warm. She smiled as her eyes traced the slight depression in the bed beside her. She exhaled softly.

She lifted her head from her pillow, the sheets slipping from her body. She stood, naked for a moment, feeling the light of the sun warming her. She walked to her dresser and put on a t-shirt and sweat pants. She looked at herself in the mirror for a long time, wondering who the person was that looked back at her. Then she turned and walked to her small kitchenette.

The sound of the kettle whistling brought her out of her reverie. She gently dipped a tea bag in hot water, still thinking of the night before.

She sat quietly for a moment. Then she began to sing. She sang from her heart, the words flowing freely from her soul to her lips, slipping past the part of the mind that contemplates or judges. She sang for a long time. She sang about love. She sang about hope. She sang about sadness. She sang about life. She sang into the depths of her cup. Then she stopped and took a sip.

The room rang with the sad silent applause that echos in the stillness of every song without an audience. Sybil listened to it for a moment. Then she took another sip.

“Do you forgive me?” She asked the darkness at the bottom of the cup.

Always. The darkness whispered back.

“I love you.” She said to the darkness, and took another sip.

A Love Like Home

This is a monologue that I wrote for someone as part of a collaborative project that turned out not to be a collaborative project. Oh well, I’m putting it here now…

Will you just listen to me. I’m trying to be honest with you. Being honest, truly honest, isn’t an easy thing, so please just hear me out. Yes, I still love him. When I look at him I feel something. I feel a piece of what I felt when I was a kid, pining after the unattainable. But that isn’t a choice. I didn’t wake up this morning and decide to still love him. Emotions don’t work that way. You feel them, like you feel silk or leather or sandpaper. So yes, I love him. And I don’t want to lie to you and say it’s nothing, because it isn’t. It’s… heavy. But that’s how my love for him has always felt; like a ton of bricks. But you know what? I don’t want to carry around a ton of bricks for the rest of my life. And I’ve loved other men too. And each one is different. I’ve known love at first sight, irrational and sudden. I’ve known love like joy, high on it all the time. And I’ve known love like chocolate, all craving. And maybe I don’t love you like that. I’m sorry if that’s not good enough for you… but the love I have for you is better than good. It doesn’t weigh you down or make you high, and you don’t crave it. It’s a love you don’t always feel, but that’s because it’s always there. It makes you happy without even realizing it, without even trying. And when it’s gone, you feel alone. It’s the best kind of love a person can find. I love you like home.

Runes

Yuri raised a single finger as his new apprentice entered the room. The young man, scrawny and awkward in the throes of adolescence, stood fidgeting, hat in hand, for quite a long time. His eyes darted back and forth between a chair a few feet away that he didn’t have the courage to sit in, the older man hunched over his writing desk, and his battered hand-me-down shoes. Finally, just as the young man was certain for at least the fourth time that his feet would fall off and send his legs through the floor, Yuri leaned back and sighed heavily.

Their eyes met and held each other, the boy trying to look brave and ready, Yuri wondering if the boy was competent and patient enough for the work. “What is your name?” Yuri asked.

“George.”

“That’s my name.” Yuri replied with a slight smile.

“My dad said your name was Yuri.”

“Same thing, different language.” Yuri leaned forward again. “How many languages do you speak?”

“Just English, sir.”

“Do I look like a sir?” Yuri asked rhetorically “I speak six languages: Russian, German, Swedish, French, English, and Spanish. Each language is different.” Yuri picked up the pen on his desk. “But the pen? The pen speaks a language of it’s own. The runes that this pen writes touch the very truth of things. The pen bypasses the barriers of language for any who can produce and decipher the meaning of the runes. The illiterate common man will call this magic, that a slip of paper can pass knowledge from one mind to another. But here…” Drawing his pen from it’s inkpot, Yuri sent it flying across a slip of paper on his desk. He tore the freshly inked symbols off the page, leaned over the desk, handed it to George, and waited to see how he would react.

George took the small slip of paper. He stared at the contorted lines of black ink for a moment, sizing them up and deciding where to begin. Then he grimaced as he set to work on the mental acrobatics required to unlock their knowledge. A golden glow illuminated the page as the first rune untwisted. As the light touched his eyes George knew that the runes before him contained a question. This knowledge etched itself in his mind as the rune itself faded from the page, lost forever.

George continued the process, pulling apart the second rune, watching it glow, and capturing it’s meaning in his mind. The question was directed at him. Looking at the page he could tell that only one rune remained.

When his work was done he held the now blank slip of paper out, offering it back to Yuri. ”Yes.” he answered the question aloud “I can read.”

“Very good.” Yuri grunted, suppressing a smile with raised eyebrows “That will save us some time.”

***

George stared at the page before him, his eyes slowly widening, his jaw slowly dropping. He turned and looked at Yuri with a powerless expression.

“Lost?” Yuri asked with a mischievous smile.

George looked back down at the page, at the hours of work before him. “I don’t know what comes next… I don’t remember what I just wrote. I don’t remember any of it.”

Yuri chuckled, remembering his own apprenticeship. “Just as the runes vanish from the page as they enter your mind, so too do they vanish from your mind as they fill the page. But you knew that, did you not? So why are you surprised?”

“How do you do it then.” George asked with furrowed brow. “How do you write a whole novel when you forget every word you write as you write it.” He brought the gnawed handle of his pen to his lips.

Yuri smacked the pen away absent mindedly. “That’s the challenge of our craft, isn’t it. Flip back to the chapter start and look at the insignia. What does it mean to you? Where does it put you in the story?”

George flipped slowly through the pages, he could barely even remember how many he had written. When he reached the insignia he stared at it blankly for a moment. The insignia was not a rune that would vanish from the page if read. Rather, it was more like a crude picture, a symbolic reminder of what the chapter was about. George knew that this insignia was a cat, he knew the sorts of things a cat could symbolize, but he could not recall what such symbolism had to do with this story.

Yuri could see the confusion and frustration in his eyes. “Welcome to the first great lesson of novel writing. You’ve done well so far, but this is what separates the men from the boys.” Yuri put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Never. Write. Too. Much. Trust your reader to connect A to C, but never give them B. You must cling to B for yourself.  B is for you.”

“So what do I do now? Throw it out, start again from scratch?” George was almost in tears.

Yuri laughed. “You are too serious. No, of course not! Just read it back into your mind and try again.”

George looked at Yuri with astonishment that quickly turned to relief. Without another word he began to read the chapter he had just finished, starting from his insignia. As the runes vanished from the page and filled his mind he remained baffled as to how any of this would lead to the rest of the story Yuri had taught him. He read it as a reader would, ignorant of the journey, though for him the ending was spoiled. Finally, as he began to untwist the last few paragraphs he smiled, and when the last rune vanished from the page he looked up at Yuri. “A cat!” He laughed, shaking his head.

Yuri smiled back and said “Now do it again, but this time hold a little back for yourself. You give enough to the reader so that they can piece together what has happened, but you hold enough back in your own mind so that you don’t forget. You need to trust your reader, and you need to keep your place in the story. That is the delicate balance of novel writing.”

George nodded to himself, dipped his pen in the ink, and allowed his thoughts to flow out of his his mind and onto the page. As the last glow of dusk vanished he leaned back from the candle light. He had no memory or knowledge of what the pages before him contained, but as he glanced at the insignia of the cat he immediately understood it’s significance. He tilted his head to the side as he considered what it could mean in the context of the unwritten chapters still full and lush in his mind.

“Faith.” Yuri said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “That is the hardest part, having faith in yourself. The more you write, the better you will be at understanding each insignia and choosing what to tell and what to hold back. If you truly devote yourself to this art, then in ten or twenty years you will write a version of this very novel that is flawless. The jagged edges between each chapter will be smooth, your voice as a writer clean and consistent. On that day you will know the pride of being a true novelist.”

***

George spent most of his waking hours with Yuri and as a consequence he tried to find as many excuses as he could to slip out of Yuri’s tiny office. He had to ‘use the bathroom’ so often that he was surprised Yuri wasn’t seriously concerned about his health.

He wasn’t really surprised though. Yuri’s novel sold reasonably well when it was in stock, but Yuri was such a perfectionist that he could never really produce enough copies to sustain interest. Yuri spent most of his day hunched over his writing desk carving black runes into the white pages and still barely produced enough to put food on the table. Thus the arrangement with George’s father, a landlord with a deep love of literature and vicarious aspirations for his son. Yuri barely noticed George most of the time, only occasionally offering the same stale bits of advice or reading a few paragraphs here and there upon request.

It wasn’t as though George wasn’t grateful for Yuri’s lessons though. On the contrary, the thing George liked to do most during this time away from Yuri was to write. He wrote dozens of short stories, nothing as ambitious as a whole novel, but some of the longer ones required great care in their construction. He never tried to publish any of them, most of them he just read back so that he could see how well he had done.

For a long time George had trouble finding a good place to do his writing. He tried the steps along the street, but it was too busy and loud to focus. He tried going home to the quiet of his small room, but it took too long for him to get there and back. It was an unseasonably hot day in May when George took refuge in the cool, dark basement of the apartments where Yuri lived. The basement was used for storage, and as George wandered the various partitions he stumbled across an old writing desk next to a pile of supplies and a large misshapen object under a dusty white sheet. George was immediately delighted with the setup and moved the desk under one of the high, narrow, street-level windows to capture some of the light from outside.

***

Yuri scowled at the blank pages before him. He looked up over the rim of his glasses at George. “Good.”

George waited for Yuri to continue.

“You have all the pieces of the story, your voice is getting more consistent, and the chapters connect well. You just need more life to it. Your audience needs to feel the characters and events.”

George looked down.

Yuri dropped the pages on the desk, leaned back, and rubbed his face  “Don’t worry, write it a few more times and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.”

George shifted his weight and looked to the side.

Yuri sighed heavily. “What? Out with it. There are things to do, don’t waste my time with childish pouting.”

George scrunched his face and looked up at Yuri. “I don’t want to write it a few more times. I want to write something new.”

Yuri paused, blinked a few times, and said. “This novel has been passed down through four generations of novelists, refined by master after master after master. This is a good novel.”

“I know, I just…”

“You won’t find a better novel out there. I promise you that.” Yuri insisted.

“No, I don’t want…”

“And don’t think most of the great novelists would take a boy like you in. A good novelist mentors scholars of high birth, not some landlord’s son.”

“Then what are you.” George spat, and immediately regretted it.

Yuri ground his teeth as he glared at George, nodding slowly. With a sharp exhale he continued in a quiet voice full of conviction “This is a good novel. You are lucky to have it.” He turned away from George dismissively.

George sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “I don’t want to learn from someone else. That’s not what I meant. I meant I want to write something else. I want to write something new.”

Yuri turned back, eyebrows raised. “New? You mean original? Ha.” He laughed sardonically. “I thought like you when I was younger. I had a dozen stories brewing in my mind. I tried to find a way to write them all and squandered years of my life on the folly. Do not get ahead of yourself. You are a bright child, but you are not yet such a master of the craft that you can mold a novel of your own from nothing but the aether. No, it is better to master one novel, and master it well, than to write a dozen inferior ones.”

George ignored that and continued insistently “Painters paint many paintings in their life. Why can’t a writer write many stories?”

“A painter can see what he paints as he paints it.” Yuri looked George steadily in the eyes. “A novelist must know every detail of the novel from the start. He must know it so well that even as he pours it onto the page he can reconstruct it from what he retains. You are progressing well, but you are not ready to write your own novel. This is a good novel. Master it. Teach it to an apprentice of your own some day. Then, when you’ve poured it from your mind into theirs, then you can write a novel of your own.”

Yuri paused for a moment to let his words sink in, then he said “No more talk of this, let us return to work.”

***

Months passed as George continued to act as Yuri’s apprentice six days a week from dawn to dusk. It’s easy to lose interest in something when you spend every waking moment focused on it. The human mind craves variety and challenge. George spent more and more time escaping from Yuri, but less of it writing stories of his own. He would draw pictures in the corner of his writing paper, throw wads of balled up paper at various objects around the room to test his accuracy, or else stare up through the window at the legs of people walking by in the street.

On a cold day in February George sat shivering at his basement desk. He looked around the room for some additional source of warmth. He hadn’t given much thought to the large oddly shaped object in the corner, but the white sheet thrown over it might offer some protection from the cold. He pulled the sheet off, shook out the dust, and threw it over his shoulders.

Standing there clutching the extra layer close and waiting for it to warm up, he eyed the large object, now exposed, with new curiosity. It was some sort of machine. George wasn’t really sure what it was doing here. The other contents of this storage partition led George to believe that it belonged to Yuri. He had always just assumed that the object under the sheet was some piece of furniture too bulky for Yuri’s small apartment. A machine though? What would a novelist like Yuri want with a bunch of rusty gears? George almost considered asking, but he didn’t want to draw attention to his frequent absences or let Yuri in on the little office he had set up for himself down here.

Maybe George really was growing tired of writing. He liked thinking up stories, but he just didn’t seem to have the patience or persistence to be a true novelist. His father would be disappointed, but perhaps it was time for George to try his hand at something new. Why not machinery?

***

George beamed as he entered Yuri’s cramped office and dropped two stacks of papers on his reading desk. Yuri blinked and looked back and forth between the two stacks. “What is this?” Yuri asked.

George’s grin broadened as he said “Look closely, what do you see.”

Yuri picked up the first page of each stack. He scanned them without reading and then nodded “They look very similar. Good, your consistency is improving.”

George chuckled, almost a giggle. “No, not similar. Identical.”

Yuri looked at him, puzzled, and then looked down at the pages again. “Identical?”

“Read the first paragraph of each.”

Yuri did as he was instructed and then leaned back in his chair. George didn’t really notice the sweat forming on Yuri’s forehead, he only saw the broad smile on Yuri’s face “Impressive, but how did you do this?”

George sat in a chair beside Yuri’s desk and scooped up one of the manuscripts, excitedly shuffling through the pages. “A few months ago I found an old machine in the basement storage. I had no idea what it was at first but I just thought it might be fun to try and figure out how all the pieces fit together, see if I could figure out what it was meant to do. Well, I figured it out. I figured it out and I got it working. It makes copies. Identical copies!”

George hadn’t noticed the change in Yuri’s face until he looked up. What he saw in Yuri’s eyes startled him. He had been scolded by Yuri many times, but this was something different. They locked eyes for a moment and George suddenly found himself without the nerve to speak or move. Then, without a word, Yuri stood, pushed passed George, and walked out the door.

George blinked at the door left hanging open, mouthing confused non-words, then he followed. “What’s wrong? What did I say?”

Yuri headed for the stairs without acknowledging George. His footsteps were heavy but steady as he walked with clenched jaw and fists.

George hesitated at the top of the stairs, unsure whether to follow. “Was it your machine in the basement? I thought it might be. I’m sorry I didn’t ask permission…”

Yuri was already turning the corner of the stairwell, headed down to the first floor. George scampered after him.

“Are… are you still going to mentor me. I do like the novel. I know sometimes I’m impatient, but you’re right, it’s a good novel, and I never meant to disrespect it. But it’s okay, because now, with the machine, anyone can read the novel, and I don’t have to write it fresh each time. I can write new stories. Oh!  And now it will be easier because I will be able to read them back without losing my work. Imagine that!”

The door leading from the stairwell into the basement storage slammed in George’s face. At times George had felt small, stupid, and embarrassed as Yuri’s apprentice, but he had never felt as hurt and powerless as he did staring at that door. He slowly put a hand on the knob when the sound of metal striking metal echoed through the door. His eyes went wide and he pulled the door open hard. He ran as fast as he could through the door and down the corridor to the third storage space on the left. There he watched in stunned horror as Yuri brought a heavy wrench down on the machine. A second huge dent appeared in the side of the device as the metal frame buckled with a loud crash.

“No!” George shouted, eyes wide with fear “What are you doing?”

Yuri turned and glared at him, face red with anger. “This is my machine, my mistake. I should have destroyed it years ago.”

“Why? No! Please, don’t you understand what this means?” George protested.

“What it means? It would mean the end of our… no, of my profession. I will not allow that.” As Yuri turned and lifted the wrench for a third time George shrieked and lept forward.

***

Roy took the small slip of paper from his new partner. He gazed intently at it and painstakingly unravelled the meaning of the runes.

“Yes.” he replied aloud “I’m literate.”

Sergeant Mansfield sized Roy up while running the tips of his fingers through his beard, then nodded tersely. “Walk and talk, we’re in the middle of a case.”

“Yes, sir.” Roy replied following the Sergeant’s lead. “Is that why we’re meeting here instead of the precinct office?”

“I’m a beat cop at heart, Roy, I don’t have much use for desks and bureaucrats. We’re tracking down a thief who’s been stealing novels. Have you ever read one?”

“When I can afford it. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Maybe someday I’ll retire and write crime novels. It’s a dream, anyway.”

“Hmm” the Sergeant responded under the jarring sound of a steam whistle. They stood silent for a moment, all sound drowned out by the roar of a sleek blue and gold diesel train entering the station. Roy recognized the insignia as belonging to a reputable Chicago guild. Good quality. Lucky. The sergeant continued “We’ve tracked down dozens of sales this guy has made to various buyers around the country. Thing is, no copies of the novels have been reported missing.”

“Wait, if nothing’s reported missing then how is it theft? Sound like he’s just buying up novels and reselling them.”

“That’s what I thought at first, but he’s sold several copies of the same novel, all identical.”

“So he bought one copy, read it, mastered it, and wrote his own versions? That’s incredibly impressive, but it’s not illegal.”

“No, that wouldn’t be, except that when I say identical I mean identical. Here.” Mansfield reached into a side satchel he was carrying and handed Roy two heavy leather bound books and then sat by the window watching the world shutter and start to roll backward. “Those are just two of the copies we picked up. Don’t read, we’re saving them.”

Roy opened one book, flipping through the pages, glancing at the insignia at the top of each chapter. Then he opened the other, doing the same. After a moment he looked up at his partner with a puzzled expression. “Not even a true master could write exactly the same novel, in exactly the same way, twice in a row. There must be some differences.”

“And yet we have about 5 or 6 completely identical copies of that novel alone, and those are just the ones that we’ve uncovered that haven’t been read already.”

“That’s impossible.  How is that possible?”

“That’s what we need to find out.”

The train rumbled along it’s elevated path over the city as Roy stood in silent contemplation of the books in his hands. Finally he sat and said. “Wait, if he’s legally obtaining the novels, then it’s still not theft. Why is this even a concern of ours?”

“The boss is under pressure from the nobility. I saw the governor himself in the boss’s office with one of those.” He nodded at the books in Roy’s hands.

“Why?”

“They’re afraid, I suspect.”

“Why would they be afraid of someone being able to make perfect copies of novels? So the guy sells a bunch of extra novels and gets rich, good for him.”

“What do you suppose happens if his method for making copies becomes widely known?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess people would stop buying novels altogether if they could just make their own copies. Still, it’s not like that would deter writers, you just can’t stop artists from producing art, the church is proof of that.”

“Careful, you’ll get yourself accused of sacrilege.”

“Oh, no, nothing against the church, just saying that art is part of human nature. And anyway, if people really want new novels they’d find a way to gather together and commission them. If it comes down to supply and demand then as long as there is a demand for novelty then people will find a way to fund the supply of novelty. There doesn’t seem to be much to fear there.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. It wouldn’t just be novels, it would be anything that’s written. An education would become that much more accessible to the common man.  There would be no way to stop or slow the spread of knowledge or information. And heaven forbid the secret techniques of the guilds were to fall into the wrong hands. They could be copied for everyone to read and reproduce. If the guilds collapsed the whole empire could very well collapse with them.”

“Huh. I see your point.” Roy looked down at the two identical books in his hands. “But it’s still not illegal.”

“If the governor tells you to look into something, you look into it, legal or not. Besides,until we know exactly how he’s doing it we won’t know for sure. And even if his methods are legal, as soon as we find out what they are, you can believe me when I tell you, they won’t be legal for long.”

The train slowed and squealed to a stop. The steam whistle blew again and the conductor leaned out of the engine compartment shouting “Last stop in Brooklyn! Eastbound express to Long Island! All Aboard!”

“Come on.” Mansfield said. “One of the novels being sold was last written by a novelist named Yuri.”

“We’re going to interview him?”

“No, he’s dead. Cold case. Some of the first book sales started shortly after the case was abandoned. We’re going to see if there’s a connection, and we’re going to start by tracking down his missing apprentice.”