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art by Shane M. Gavin

Answer Man

"A. J. Barr" is a paradox (a Ph.D. and an M.D. collaborating). Both are SFWA members located in North America, and both deal with obstinate juveniles by day and obstreperous plot lines by night. This is their first joint publication, inspired in part by excellent (though largely untranslatable) stories found on anekdot.ru.

***Editor's Warning: There is mature language in the story that follows***
It happened with annoying regularity, often enough to make it difficult to maintain a relationship.
This time, the answer and the compulsion hit me at a particularly inopportune moment. I jumped up to dial Kowalski, pacing impatiently as his phone rang, Lydia coming into view each time I turned: supine on the bed, mouth open in shock; sitting up, knees drawn to chest, lips forming a bloodless line of anger.
"Hello?" said Kowalski's voice, sleepy thick.
"This is Holder," I said. "I have your solution."
"Huh?" I heard the yawn around the sound. "Mr. Holder, do you know what time it is?"
"As per our contract," I said crisply, "I will remind you…"
Kowalski sighed. "Right. OK, let me get my bearings. You have the solution… to employee pilferage at our shoe factories in Burma and Bangladesh?"
"Yes," I said.
"Let me get a pen," he said.
"You won't need it," I said, still pacing. "Make right shoes in Burma, make left shoes in Bangladesh."
I made the next turn in time to see two shoes fly at my head. First right, then left. They were mine; Lydia was fully dressed by then, and at the door. She slammed it hard enough to rattle all the furniture in the room. There was a lot of furniture; it was a very expensive room.
"Mr. Holder!" Kowalski's voice was clear now. "What was that? Did someone just get killed?"
"Something did," I said. The budding romance. Gone the way of all the others. "Do you want me to repeat your solution?"
"Hell no," Kowalski said. "I wrote it down. I'll frame it--after I call the bank."
"My fee will wait till the morning," I said. "I'd hate to inconvenience you more than I have to."
"It's not like I'm going back to bed," he said. "I have five hours left to kick myself for not coming up with this on my own before I have to go back to the Board and tell them to start kicking themselves. Ten words, Mr. Holder. Your fee comes to exactly ten thousand dollars a word."
"I trust you'll find my services worth the expense, Mr. Kowalski."
I heard a sigh. "They are. Till someone else learns to think sideways. Someone working for me, I hope."
"Good night, Mr. Kowalski," I said.
"Good morning, Mr. Holder," he said and hung up.
I padded to the bathroom, turned the lights on. There was a cut just sideways of my eyebrow: one of my shoes had struck true. I dabbed it with a moist towel, stuck a dry tissue on top. No big deal.
All bleeding stops. Eventually.
I love to fly. Getting there is hell--security theatre, the worst show in any town. But once I'm up there, with thirty thousand feet of variably polluted atmosphere between my buzzing brain and terra firma, the buzz… goes away.
Gone. Any question you ask, any problem you want me to solve, as long as I'm in the air, I'm free. No compulsion. Just me, the hum of the engines, and the flight attendant's baffled stare when I ask for orange soda in my cola.
An hour into Flight 063 from DFW to LAX, I got the stare. I stared it down. I got my little plastic cup of ambrosia.
"Spezi!" a woman's voice said, across the aisle and back a row.
"Mezzo Mix!" I shot back without stopping to think.
"Oh, but it's so much better when you make your own," she said.
I was already half in love before I even turned. If she'd been a zaftig sixty traveling with her grandkids, it wouldn't have mattered.
She wasn't sixty. If she was soft, it was in all the right places. Those first moments, I noticed eyes, crinkled up at the corners, and a smile--just a little bit crooked, teeth just a little bit irregular: perfect.
Her name was Marjorie. She lived in the Valley, and she was not writing a screenplay. She'd spent six years teaching English in Munich, where Spezi and Mezzo Mix and Coke-and-Orangina were a way of life.
"What do you do now?" I asked, as one does.
"I find answers," she said.
That metaphor about an electric shock running through you? Not exaggerating. I had to remind myself to breathe--and not to squeak, "Me, too!"
At my security clearance, you don't say anything you don't strictly need to say, and it's strictly on a need-to-know basis. So I breathed, and nodded, and raised an eyebrow. "That's… interesting," I said.
She laughed. She'd had me at her smile, but the laugh finished me off. "That's what everyone says! But it's true. People ask questions. I track down the answers."
"Ah," I said as the disappointment took root and started to strangle my heart. "A research assistant."
She was still smiling without the slightest hint of frost. "I suppose you could say that. I find information that people can't find, in places they never think to look."
"Such as over Kansas, cruising at 30,000 feet?"
She had a dimple. I find them, in general, too adorable to stand, but hers was, like the rest of her, perfect. "Would you think to look there?"
I didn't have an answer to that, or any compulsion to come out with one. And that felt wonderful.
"My father," said Sanford Rhee, "started the first Korean advertising flyer in California."
I nodded.
"Also the first business directory," added Sanford. He had a cigarette in his right hand. It was already falling to pieces, but he continued to knead it.
"And now..." I prompted.
"And now there are ten B2B directories in Korean, and he's lost his edge. He wants it back, Mr. Holder."
"You know my conditions," I said.
"Workable solution, one hundred thousand dollars," he said. "I must take your call any time of day or night. No promise when the solution will be available, only that it will be simple to implement, and effective. Payment within 24 hours of solution."
"Goodbye, Mr. Rhee," I said and stretched out my hand.
He had a strong grip.
As I left his office massaging my hand, he flung the mangled, unsmoked cigarette into a trash bin with a movement that would have thrown a respectable fastball.
She was even more adorable, if possible, on the ground than she was in the air. She loved long walks on the beach and long drives in the country. She knew how to be quiet, but she had the best laugh, and the best timing for it, that I'd ever known.
I dreamed about finding ways to get to her side of the country, answers that needed answering and clients that needed clienting.
There was only one tiny little problem.
"I'm thinking of moving out here," I said.
"Mmm-hmm," she said.
We'd met for dinner at our new favorite place, this tiny little Mexican joint off Van Nuys that had drying racks on the roof for the carne seca--the first I'd seen outside of Tucson. I'd stretched my quick business trip to two weeks and was thinking about stretching it a week more, and never mind the phone ringing off the hook. Clients demanding answers--new ones to go with the old. Business was the best it had been in a year.
Except for the part where I held up my end of the deal.
I watched her spread spoonfuls of spicy beef on a tortilla, running a line of salsa verde over it and then a dollop of crema. She rolled it up carefully and tucked the ends in. Her hair hung down, half concealing her face. I happened to know it smelled like flowers.
"Did you hear me?" I said.
"Mmm-hmm," she said.
"Is that a 'yes' noise or a 'no' noise or an 'I don't care' noise?"
"I don't know," she said, setting down her newly made burrito and tucking her hair behind her ear. She still wasn't looking at me. "Is it a good thing for you?"
"I can live anywhere," I said. "My business takes me all over the world."
"That's good," she said.
"Is there something wrong?" I asked. Yes, I'm slow, but I had things on my mind.
She shrugged a little bit, and shook her head slightly. "Not… really."
Which meant, of course, that there was. I reached for her hand. The spark was still there. I could feel the buzz already, the start of the compulsion, the answers hovering just out of reach.
I could control this. I could. I set my teeth, and she wound her fingers with mine. The buzz sank to a dull roar.
"I think," she said, "that if you want to take things slowly, I'm all right with that. Everybody is in such a rush, you know?"
I hadn't realized I was holding my breath until it rushed out of me. "I'll stay another week, how's that? And then we'll see what we think."
"Or you could go home, and we could see what happens then."
"Are you sending me away?"
She shook her head. "I don't want you to go. But you have work. All those calls, those messages piling up… I can do mine here, this is home, but you--"
Yes. That was the problem, wasn't it?
Her fingers slipped from mine. "I don't want to keep you from doing your job."
"You aren't--"
She shook her head, stood up, brushed my lips with hers--the shock nearly knocked me down. "I'm going home. So should you."
So I should. But I wasn't giving up. And that's what it would feel like if I walked away now and didn't come back.
I looked her in the eye. "See you tomorrow?"
She hesitated.
"Dinner," I said. "Here." Then maybe, I thought, for the first time, something else.
"All right," she said.
Of course she didn't know what else I'd been thinking.
Did she?
It was six in the morning in Brooklyn. Three a.m. here in LA.
Screw it. What are friends for?
I picked up the phone.
"Hello?" said a raspy, sleepy voice.
"Perikles?" I said.
"What the fuck," the voice answered. "That you, Mikey?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's me."
"What time is it?" he said. "Oh shit. Six. You dickwad, what the fuck do you want?"
"A doctor," I said.
"Shove an enema up your ass and call me in the morning," he said.
"And a friend," I added.
"Oh," he said.
I heard a creak and a thump, and a muffled voice. Female, probably.
"Mikey?" he said.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Are you, like, drowning right now, or on fire, or can I have a cup of coffee?"
"Call me back," I said.
"In college," I said, "there was this girl, Irene, I really liked."
"Mmm-hmm," said Perikles around a mouthful of breakfast.
"And my roommate Miles Fleming offered me fifty bucks to write his English paper," I said. "I turned him down. He would not take no for an answer."
"Mmm-hmm," said Perikles again.
"Do I need to draw you a picture?" I said.
"I wish you would," he said. "I'm sure it would be most educational."
"Let's just say that when I jumped up, ran to my desk, and started typing, Irene was fully justified in taking it badly. Very badly."
"I'm still waiting for a picture," Perikles said.
"Five-ten, huge eyes, B-cup," I screamed into the phone, "and hip joints in the shoulder girdle. Good enough?"
"Don't shout, I'm not deaf," he said. "I see you never got over your crush on Mrs. Helfling in seventh grade. Though I remember her as more of a 36-C."
"Don't you psychoanalyze me, Perikles!" I yelled.
"Funny," he said. "I thought that was what you woke me for. And it's Doctor Makropoulos, when I shrinkalyze people."
"Sorry," I said.
"Never mind that," said Perikles. "So as I see it, if someone asks you a question--"
"A hard question," I said. "An important question. To them."
"Right," said Perikles crisply. "And if they offer money for an answer, then..."
"Then, next time I have sex, the answer pops into my head, along with an unstoppable urge to..."
"To communicate the answer to the interested party," he summed up. "Interesting. What's her name?"
"What?" I said.
"The girl you are in love with," Perikles said patiently. "You would not call me at this hour if you did not see this as an urgent problem. This would only be an urgent problem if you were afraid that the next girl you jump off of is going to dump you. Since this has happened before, the novelty of being dumped has worn off. It is not being dumped you fear; it's being dumped by a specific, particular woman. The woman you are in love with."
"Her name is Marjorie," I said.
"All I can say is," he said, "if she is really the woman for you, she'll have to love you as you are. With your warts, bald spots, strange talents, strange compulsions. Tertiary syphilis. Delirium tremens."
"Thanks very much, Doctor Makropoulos," I said. "Any other words of wisdom?"
"Break it to her gently," he said.
I blew a raspberry at the phone and hung up.
She'd made up her mind, I realized at dinner. She wasn't going to harass me. She'd eat Chef Marisela's good food, she'd enjoy my company. She'd let the rest happen however it wanted to happen.
When I invited her back to my hotel, she didn't answer right away. It was the first time, and that made it significant. Even if she didn't know just how significant it was.
I didn't try to pressure her. This had to be her decision.
"All right," she said.
"A penny for your thoughts," she said.
"A hundred thousand for yours," I said.
"I asked you first," she said.
"I have the winning bid," I answered.
She smiled, but it died fast. "I'm just wondering…"
"Are you gay?"
"No," I answered.
"Hell no," I said.
"Some horrible incurable disease?"
"Not that I know of," I said.
"Some other deep awful secret?"
"You are getting… uncomfortably warm," I said.
"You can tell me," she said.
"No, I can't," I said. "You said it yourself. Everyone you ever liked went crazy on you. You'll think it's happening to me now."
"I'm half-thinking it already," she said. "Come on. It can't be that bad. I just want to make you happy. How can I make you happy?"
Most women would put such a twist in that that I'd be running all the way back to New York before the whole of it was out. The way Marjorie said it….
"I'll take that penny," I said.
She blinked. "What?"
"The penny for my thoughts," I said. "Come over here and give it to me."
She raised an eyebrow. After a moment's bemusement, she retrieved her purse from the vanity table near the door. She fumbled in it, tripped, and nearly fell walking back to the bed.
I sprang up and caught her. The penny dropped and rolled on the carpet. It didn't matter; I could pick it up later. Right now, her eyes, wide open and very blue, were staring into mine, and her lips were close, so close. I kissed them.
I had a problem to solve.
It came at the appointed time: the answer, and the compulsion.
"Marry me," I said to the person who'd asked the question.
When we were both done crying, I told her my secret. I think it was the penny that made her believe it.
"What happens the second time?" she asked. "With the same… you know?"
"I don't know," I said. "It's never happened before."
She couldn't wait to find out.
"Yes?" said Mr. Rhee's sleepy voice.
"This is Holder," I said. "Make your book the smallest."
"What?" Rhee muttered.
"Make your book the smallest. That way, it will be on top in any stack, and easiest to pull from a shelf. Try it for yourself in the morning."
He muttered something before hanging up. It's probably for the best I don't speak Korean. No matter. He'd see the truth of it soon enough.
She was still there in bed, her eyes still wide and blue. Lips parted in a smile, one knee bent, the blanket crumpled at her feet.
"The wedding still on?" I asked.
She nodded. There was the dimple, armed and ready to slay me. "If you just answer one question." She fumbled in her purse again, produced a nickel. "I'm out of pennies. It's about my parents."
"Trouble?" I asked.
The corner of her mouth curved up. "Big trouble," she said. "Anniversary trouble. I don't know what to get them, except it has to be a matched set."
"His and hers golf clubs won't do?" I said.
"Nope," she said. "They have nothing in common. Nothing but me, and I don't take well to gift-wrapping. He teaches Russian; she's an engineer."
I've heard it takes longer the third time in one night, and found it true. It was a good hour before I had an answer.
"Get your dad an Anna Karenina action figure," I said.
"Uhmh?" she murmured, her leg draped over me, her teeth nibbling my ear.
"And a model railroad for your mom," I said.
All bleeding stops, sooner or later. Sooner than fits of laughter, for sure: crawling on all fours, gasping for breath, wrapping head in blanket so as not to wake the neighbors.
Besides, it's only an ear. I have two of those, after all. No big deal even if I lose one. I've only had one heart, though, and now I've gone and lost that.
Well, not really lost; not like it's rolling in the dust somewhere. Let's say I bartered it, in a fair trade.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 29th, 2012
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