Jesper Torus had been standing on the same spot on the sidewalk for almost thirty minutes. The building in front of him was older but well-maintained, with marble latticework and gold-tipped iron railings on the terraces. He held up the letter with both hands. His fingers had left dark smudges, and dried sweat curled the corners. This was the right address. Women in makeup and clean-shaven men walked in and out, chatting energetically, striding with purpose. He drew in a breath and started toward the entrance.
No one stopped him in the lobby. He almost wished someone would, so everyone else would stop staring. In the elevator they held fingers under noses, in the hallway they dropped conversations and went to call security.
Glass-walled offices and landscape prints led up to a heavy wooden door. A tarnished bronze nameplate said ‘Heggle Haulage.’ Jesper pictured a torture dungeon on the other side. The door creaked open before he could knock, and closed behind him just as a guard emerged from the elevator.
Inside was a single enormous office. It wasn’t well lit despite an encompassing grid of windows that arched into the ceiling, like in an old train station. More than a dozen leather couches formed several nooks for conversation. In the center stood a taxidermied elephant, ears outspread and trunk low, ready to charge.
“I’d invite you to sit, but then I’d have to buy a new couch.”
Jesper mumbled, “Sorry,” and began to shuffle towards the door.
“I didn’t say to leave.” An older man stepped out from behind a wooden desk. He had white hair and wore a purple linen shirt with gold cufflinks. Wrinkles webbed the skin around his eyes, evidently the result of a lifetime of gentle smiling. “I invited you here.”
Jesper crinkled the letter in his hand.
“So you know who I am.”
Jesper stared at the floor, unworthy, and mumbled, “Harg Heggle.”
“That’s right.” Harg patted his desk. It was broad and solid, with clawed feet and carved ivy patterns curling down the legs. “You made this, you know.”
At that, Jesper looked up. He squinted, looked away. The memories brought no pleasure.
“Sixty thousand, which was quite expensive at the time.”
Jesper fumbled for another apology.
“I don’t regret it, obviously.” Harg ran his finger along the elephant’s side as he approached. “Back then everyone had to have a Jesper Torus dinner table, or a Jesper Torus bedroom set, or Jesper Torus bunk beds for their kids and grandkids. Your prices were our favorite part. Now I prefer antiques, and you’re of course out of business.”
Jesper returned his gaze to the floor. He felt a pang of shame at the sight of his toe through his shoe.
Harg sat on the couch nearest Jesper and crossed his legs. “Homeless, by the stench.”
Someone had to point it out to him at least once a day. “Why am I here?”
“A second chance.”
Jesper flinched at the memory of his last second chance.
Harg continued, “Three years ago you used a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands to hide two million in a Swiss bank account. It was Jesla who helped you set it up, right? Or am I misremembering?”
“Odd.” There was an edge of impatience in Harg’s voice. “I don’t usually misremember.”
Jesper coughed. He usually felt the need to cough before speaking. “It was Jesla.”
Jesla Jimenez, metal mogul, had been so impressed with her new sapele entertainment unit that she’d opened up some rare bottle of scotch and given Jesper a free tutorial in shell corporations. It had all sounded so simple. Jesper had no competitors, not at his level of quality. Demand was soaring. Later that year he was going to open a third showroom and automate the factory’s loading dock. “For people like us,” Jesla had said, slightly drunk, squeezing his shoulder, “it just makes sense.”
Jesper nodded again, coughed again. “Jimenez.”
“Thought so,” Harg chuckled. “That was exactly one month before the ratification of the International Open Banking Accord.”
“I know I was wrong. Knew. So I don’t get a second chance.”
“They had to make an example of someone. Better you than Jesla, or me.” Harg smiled. The corners of his eyes folded into grandfatherly wrinkles. “I’d say you were unlucky. And honest, I reckon, in spite of it all.”
Jesper said nothing. He’d never forget his day in court, or his year in jail. All the showrooms had closed. The factory had closed. He’d defaulted on the loans. By the time he got out he was friendless and broke. But he hadn’t thought about any of it for a while. Food was usually more pressing.
“Do you think it’s fair that those same Swiss bankers got to keep their jobs and your money?” They both already knew the answer. But if Harg Heggle wanted a personalized homeless encounter, there wasn’t much point in resisting. “Well?”
“What was that? I’m going to need you to enunciate, like when you sold me on dovetailed drawers.”
“It was bullshit.” He blinked, startled at his own voice.
Harg raised an eyebrow. “So you can still bite.” His lip curled. “We’ll clean you up, too,” he added, more to himself than Jesper.
“Thank you,” he said, relieved. He hadn’t meant to speak so firmly. “Sir.”
“You’re welcome,” Harg chuckled. “But wouldn’t you like to know for what?”
“Okay.” Jesper suppressed another cough. His feet were starting to hurt from standing.
Harg sighed. “Can you confirm that you’re a legal citizen of Bermuda?”
“Left when I was four.” Harg glared, prompting him to mumble, “Yes.”
“Then you’ll be moving back there.” Harg looked over his shoulder and called, “Jacksbury.”
A woman rose from a shadowed cluster of couches. She had short, dark hair and walked with perfect symmetry. She stopped beside the couch Harg was sitting on and stood with her hands still at her sides. Her face was almost expressionless. Almost. Jesper had learned to read faces over the past two years—who might drop a coin in his cup? Usually not the smiling ones. But she looked like she might have.
That evening Jesper stood at the entrance of Bethesda Heggle Spaceport. None of the other travelers looked twice. But now he couldn’t stop looking at his own reflection in every glass door and bathroom mirror and polished surface he came across. He looked well. Clean-shaven, clean hair and skin and fingernails, leather shoes and fitted suit. He looked nothing like himself at any earlier time in his life, and that was fine.
Above the entrance’s awning he could see a passenger shuttle rising atop a directed magnetic field. He heard a low thrumming, rising and ceasing, rising and ceasing. To the right, magnetic launchers shot unmanned freighters directly into lunar orbit.
Inside the ticketing agent scanned his eye and with no further questions sent him on to security. There a single guard scanned his eye again and pointed him toward a sparsely lit, bare concrete tunnel.
He’d never been off-planet before. Even at the peak of his furniture business, when he’d had enough money for tax havens to at least sound worthwhile, flying to the moon had seemed exorbitant, and pointless. He didn’t really see the point of this trip, either—his final destination was Bermuda. “The moon is my base of operations,” Harg had said. “This just simplifies the logistics.” Jesper caught another glimpse of himself in a mirror in the tunnel. He resolved then that he would one, shave every day, and two, not question Harg’s plans.
After what felt like miles, the tunnel opened into a hangar with forklifts moving between large metal containers, almost all of which had Jimenez Metals logos. Harg and Jesla were clearly more than acquaintances. There were a few people here, but they all wore yellow jumpsuits, and none paid Jesper more than a glance.
He was looking back at the tunnel when a woman said, “Jesper Torus.”
It sounded like a summons. “Sorry.” He tried to suppress a cough but failed. He stared at the ground, ready to be escorted out. At least the suit and shoes would look nice for another month.
“Look up, please,” she said. He did, and she scanned his eye with a handheld reader. “Thank you. I’ll escort you to your shuttle.”
Your shuttle. So Harg had made special arrangements. “Thanks.” It felt better than sorry.
Inside the shuttle faint red lights illuminated more metal containers. On the one nearest him he again saw the logo of Jimenez Metals.
“I’ve seen you before.” The voice was too hoarse to say if it was male or female. “Gallery Place Chinatown.”
The metro stop. Jesper had sat on a grate there when he’d begged during the last winter. The door slid shut behind him.
His companion cackled, coughed. “He gave me a fancy suit, too. But we can’t hide the stench.”
Jesper felt the shuttle lurch as it began to taxi. He sat down. “What is this?”
“Our second chance.”
The shuttle stopped. Jesper heard the thrumming from earlier, deeper and louder and much closer. It grew until his eardrums ruptured. He realized he was in a freighter.
He lay down flat. He’d once contemplated jumping in front of a Greyhound. He imagined the moment of impact might have felt like the pressure on his back now. Fluid leaked from his ears and splattered wide across the floor. The last thing he felt were his ribs, a few at a time, bending and cracking into his lungs.
Jesper awoke to the sound of a seal pressurizing. The door slid open, and soft white light entered the freighter. He wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed. His entire body—every part he could feel—was in pain, all-encompassing pain that drove everything else from his mind.
“Looks like one of them made it.”
“What would Harg have done if they’d both made it?”
“Would you like to find out?”
“I wouldn’t. No.”
Jesper saw Jacksbury and a man in a yellow jumpsuit standing over him. They lifted—peeled—him up and into a medipod. On the floor below he could see his own blood, squished chunks of leg and torso, a flattened fingernail. Further inside the freighter he saw a mess of skin and blood and bones in what had probably been a fitted suit.
He heard Jacksbury say to the other, “Get a water jet,” then lost consciousness.
“Wake up, Jesper.” The voice was gravelly, but not coarse. Unrushed.
Jesper opened his eyes.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.” A monitor displayed Harg sitting on one of his couches. He had his legs crossed and one arm stretched across the back. Jacksbury stood beside the monitor.
“You flew me to the moon to kill me.” Which seemed convoluted. Surely trillionaires had other means, if perhaps not as painful. All he knew was that it had been intentional.
Three seconds later Harg said, “I require a certain level of obedience from my associates.”
Harg smiled. “I just needed to make sure you wouldn’t bite. I trust you’re doing well now.”
Jesper touched his chest. All ribs were in place. The rest of him looked to be in order, reconstituted, all fingernails accounted for. Through the window he saw the Earth, rising and huge on a gray horizon. A truck with large, bulbous wheels and a Jimenez Metals container on its bed bobbled past. “You killed the other.” The realization dawned on him. “Everyone there killed him.” Jesper had been obviously out of place. The ticketing and security agents, the people in the hangar—any one of them could have intervened.
“Don’t forget it.”
Harg continued to smile at Jesper. Jacksbury just stared. It was easy to imagine that she was disgusted, though her face revealed nothing. Standing there before them, Jesper felt more afraid than he’d thought himself capable of. In the last two years, he’d been punched in the face by a passing stranger, lost three teeth to an infection and woken up coughing on bloody pus each night, and eaten spoiled food too many times to count. He hadn’t thought he could feel any more vulnerable than that.
But Harg was lord here. He was the playboy industrialist who’d brought the moon into the economy, but not into the law. Here he could have Jesper pushed into a vacuum. He could have him tortured, actually tortured, in front of all of his employees. No one would talk. He doubted anyone left the moon against Harg’s wishes.
“What do you want from me?” Jesper said.
“Let me think about it.” He touched a finger to his chin, as if deciding on an entrée. “How about a chair?”
“Make me one.”
Jacksbury led Jesper through a series of pristine white corridors. At each window, Jesper looked out at stars and blackness, and at his reflection. His body held no record of the agony on the freighter. Often during the last winter, when shivering in an unheated squat, or hungry, or outside with nowhere to urinate, he’d sometimes estimated the level of raw pain he’d endure for a reset. Apparently the freighter had been it.
They arrived at a domed room, about half the size of Harg’s office. Near the wall were planks of wood of various sizes. In the center, circular saws and power sanders and a jointer-planer were arranged like a breakfast buffet. And there was a fridge and a sink, and a bathroom.
“You want me to start making furniture again?” He hoped he didn’t sound too eager.
“Start with the chair,” Jacksbury replied evenly.
No customer had ever said that to Jesper. Harg hadn’t flipped a coin for his life so he could make Arts and Crafts style furniture on the moon. Jacksbury turned and, arms motionless at her sides, departed through the corridor.
“Wake up, Jesper.” It was Harg again, on the monitor, smiling. He was in his office. An elephant tusk occupied the space above his head.
Jesper sat up. He’d slept on the floor. He rubbed his eyes as Jackbury walked in. Privacy was clearly not a priority.
“Let’s have a look,” Harg said.
Jesper stood up and walked over to the chair he’d made overnight. Or overday. He’d lost track on the freighter. He shrugged and placed a hand on the backrest.
“What am I looking at here? Sell it to me.”
Jesper shifted his feet. “Quartersawn oak,” he began.
Harg rolled his eyes. “I supplied the wood.”
Jesper pointed under the seat. “Chi stretchers support the legs without limiting foot movement.”
“Twenty-eight mortise and tenon joints.” He felt a match-flame of confidence alight inside him. “Not a single nail.”
“Modern backrest.” He ran his fingers down a ladder of seven rails. Any more than three was unorthodox. “Obverse tapering seat.” He paused, and then added, “I’m quite proud of it.”
“I value honest work.” The corners of Harg’s eyes sharpened. “Pay him a fair price.”
Jesper moved to stand behind the chair. His confidence melted as Jacksbury approached. ‘Fair price’ could mean a bullet or a knife. She frowned, faintly, but he could see the misery behind it, as if what she was about to do was worse than a simple execution. Jesper began to imagine a cycle of hope and pain, over and over until Harg got bored. The freighter had merely been the initiation.
Harg returned his attention to Jesper. “Deposit it as soon as you arrive.”
Jacksbury pulled a slip of paper from her shirt pocket, handed it to Jesper, and left.
“And Jesper,” Harg chuckled, “enjoy Bermuda!”
He didn’t move after the monitor went black. Harg had to have better things to do than continue to observe him in secret, but he still felt watched. The hammer could strike at any moment. The freighter—the sudden, unexpected, crushing pressure—had imprinted a new kind of fear onto his mind.
After a minute he collapsed to a seat on the floor. He certainly wasn’t going to sit in the chair. He was sure Harg had figured it out when he’d said ‘obverse tapering seat.’
He really was proud of it. The seat was half an inch narrower in the front than back. The legs ended in pointed knobs that dug into the hamstrings. The ‘modern backrest’ was inclined eleven degrees from vertical—four more than the commonsense maximum of seven—and had no kicker. This chair was a dumper. And the armrests were too short. Inane, but in vogue—the perfect touch for the most spiteful chair Jesper had ever built. Whatever Harg believed, he could still bite.
He looked at the slip of paper Jacksbury had given him. It was a check. He sat for another hour, rereading it every few minutes.
It was for a trillion dollars.
Jesper stared out of the passenger shuttle’s window. The wing glowed orange as the sky shifted from black to blue. He leaned back in his seat, wondering if Harg’s couches were this comfortable.
“Another ginger ale?” asked the stewardess.
Jesper tested the can in front of him. “I haven’t finished this one.”
She smiled. “You can still have another.”
“Okay.” He quickly finished the can anyway. “Can I have another crème brûlée, too?”
“Of course, Mr. Torus.” She placed a new can on his tray and walked up the aisle.
At a million a ticket, though complimentary for him, coach was certainly a step up from freight. And now he could take a million trips, if he wanted to. He hadn’t taken the check out of his pocket since leaving the woodshop. He remembered once seeing an article about the world’s first trillionaire, the founder of a company that mined cobalt for batteries. Harg was one, or had been until very recently, and now so was Jesper Torus.
The logic was clear enough. It would have been to anyone with his history. Bermuda had the lowest tax rate in the world: zero. Thanks to the International Open Banking Accord, the only way Harg could hide his fortune there was within someone else. Tax evasion, again. He didn’t like it, but the chance to walk away had passed. He knew now that the alternative—going against Harg—would be far worse than jail.
“Here you go, Mr. Torus.” The stewardess placed another crème brûlée on his tray.
“Anything for a guest of Mr. Heggle.”
Her smile lingered, and Jesper felt his pulse quicken. He supposed he was now Harg’s banker. Or bank account. Objectively, he decided, it was an improvement.
Jacksbury picked up Jesper at Bermuda Heggle Spaceport and drove him directly to Bermuda International Bank in Hamilton. White showed where the building’s yellow stucco had chipped. They entered through a cramped revolving door, and were greeted by a teller in boxy red polo shirt. He stood with several similarly uniformed employees behind a laminated particleboard counter.
Jesper glanced at Jacksbury. She inclined her head toward the counter. Jesper raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Perhaps marble and brass and fountain pens, suits instead of polo shirts. Not what looked like a suburban branch in need of renovation. But Jacksbury smiled. It was the first smile he’d seen from her.
Jesper approached the teller. “I’d like to open an account.”
“Your name, please?”
“Two forms of ID with proof of citizenship?”
Jesper placed his Bermudan birth certificate and expired Maryland driver’s license on the counter.
The teller gave each half a glance and said, “Would you like to make an initial deposit?”
Jesper slid the check across on the counter.
The teller held it up between two fingers. For the past day Jesper had worried over creasing it while fighting the urge to look at it every few seconds, the whole time anticipating the present moment, on guard in case Harg had more surprises in store. The teller nodded, wrote something in a ledger, and placed it under the counter. Jesper let out an involuntary breath.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Jesper looked at his hands, still unused to how consistently clean they were. “That’s all, I think.”
“Then please enjoy the sunshine.”
In the car Jesper kept the window down, watching the palm trees go by as Jacksbury drove. He smelled the ocean, heard waves on the beach. It was good to be home, he told himself, even a home he had no memory of. There’d be no need to claim subway grates here. Never again would he fold his hands between his legs and pretend his toes didn’t exist. He could get a job to stay busy. Maybe he’d open a furniture shop. He had the money.
Harg’s money, that was.
“You’ll periodically be asked to buy things,” Jacksbury said as they turned off the road onto a dirt path.
“For Harg.” She said nothing for a minute, and then added, “Don’t get curious.”
Jesper glanced at her. She somehow kept still over every bump and divot. She didn’t seem at all perturbed. He wondered if he’d imagined what he’d heard in her voice: concern.
“Can I go out?” he asked.
“Within Bermuda.” No inflection whatsoever.
“Can I buy things for myself?”
“Can I work?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Was she amused or wistful? Perhaps she was also relieved about the check. She told him where to buy food, about the maid service and his wardrobe and how to access premium TV channels, and several other details of his new day-to-day existence.
The debriefing ended precisely as they pulled up to a house on the coast. Its walls were turquoise painted stone with red cedar storm shutters, and its white roof was stepped like a tiny ziggurat.
“The back has a nice view of the ocean.”
Jesper smiled, and then realized that she was waiting for him to go. As he got out of the car, he saw a beach on the other side, too rocky for sunbathing but perfect for walking, and a veranda linking it to the house.
He shut the car door. Through the window Jacksbury said, “I’ll check in periodically,” and then drove off before he could reply.
Jesper watched the car vanish as the path wound into the trees. She certainly hadn’t wanted to talk any longer than necessary, but she didn’t seem to mind his company, either. He hadn’t been anyone’s company in years. He wondered just how periodically she was planning on checking in.
The next morning Jesper found a bicycle in the garage and rode it into Hamilton. He wasn’t tired when he arrived downtown, and he still wasn’t tired after another hour of searching. He was fit. He’d forgotten the rush that came with exercise. He almost let himself feel confident. Almost. He knew that he existed fully within Harg’s dominion. What that meant, and the memory of the freighter, never left his thoughts.
He’d noticed other changes in his body in the shower the night before. Moles had gone missing, missing teeth had returned. His elbow didn’t hurt when he soaped his back. It was as if he’d never had an injury or illness in his life. At the time he’d been too preoccupied with everything else to pay much notice, but now, pedaling and breathing, calmed by the ocean air, he began to wonder. Had Harg simply given him exhaustive repairs, or was there more?
The safety of Harg’s money depended on Jesper’s wellbeing, he reflected, and he hadn’t been in great shape before. Harg had merely strengthened his asset.
Eventually he found a kitchen and bath store and locked up the bike out front. A woman slightly older than himself watched him enter.
He walked directly up to her, feeling healthy, focused, and said, “Do you do cabinetry?”
“Any hinge, door, or drawer you can think of.”
“Tables, chairs, and beds?”
“Could, but don’t.”
“Then can you tell me where to find a sliding compound miter saw, a surface planer, and a quality supply of cedar?”
“Promise not to build any doors?”
“And no chests with more than three drawers?”
Jesper looked over the kitchen displays. The morning sun cast its shadows deep into the shop. He saw at least five different styles of sinks and stoves and cabinets, all modern, granite countertops and injection-molded knobs, no wood grain in sight.
“How about no metal drawer slides?” He half-smiled. This was the most he’d spoken in years. He certainly hadn’t expected what he knew of negotiation to come back so easily. “Just guides. Wood on wood.”
She shook his hand. He began to pull back, but she squeezed. All affability left her face. “No doors.”
“I’ve no interest.”
She released his hand and smiled. “Then you can find all the tools you need at McChuck’s. Island Lumber has cedar, pine, and sapele. They’ll give you wholesale prices if you tell them I sent you.”
“And you are?”
“Thank you, Donna.” He looked over the shop once more. None to his style, but it was all well done. “I’m Jesper.”
As he turned to go she said, “No one else does Arts and Crafts on the island. I expect you’ll do well.”
“I’m just looking to keep busy.”
She watched him at the door. He wondered if she still thought him a potential competitor. Her eyes flitted over his body, which had a light sheen of sweat from the bike ride. “There are other ways to keep busy,” she said. Perhaps her interests weren’t entirely professional. “For those who contribute to the island.”
That evening, Jesper had dinner on the part of the veranda that faced the ocean. The sun was setting behind the house, and the tide made dusky islands of the rocks on the beach. It was all very pragmatic. The house was spacious, but not enough to make a single occupant feel isolated. No one would wander by, and he felt no urge to seek further comforts.
After dinner he pushed back his plate and reclined in his chair, listening to the water as the light faded. He heard a chime from his phone. It was an email from Harg.
The message read: ‘Alpha Black Lotus. Bid 300K.’ There was an eBay link.
It was some sort of collectible playing card. Jesper didn’t see why Harg bothered with bidding instead of just buying it outright at a higher price. Then he recalled his furniture business. Footstool or four-poster bed, he’d never seen someone haggle for genuine financial reasons.
It wasn’t important. Harg could buy what he wanted. He placed the bid, laid his phone on the table, and returned his attention to the night and the ocean.
Jesper stepped out of the shower, dried off, and dressed in the bathroom. He’d been living there four months and assumed there were cameras everywhere, except maybe the bathrooms. Even if they were monitored, it beat bathing in fountains and sneaking into basements of office buildings.
“You can replace more of the furniture,” Jacksbury said as Jesper entered the kitchen. “If you want.” She stood in the breakfast area, drinking beer from a can. She must have come in during his shower. At first he’d found the sight of her in any state of leisure odd, but within two or three check-ins she’d become a familiar, even calming presence. Since the second month he’d stocked pilsners just for her.
“I’m content with what you’ve provided.” He’d fallen into the habit of addressing Jacksbury and Harg as one entity. Objectively, it wasn’t rude. She was the one monitoring him, ensuring his participation in Harg’s scheme, detaining him on the island. But he knew it was rude, because he wanted to see if it bothered her. “More than content.”
In spite of the fact that he wasn’t free, it was true. He might have once had more satisfaction—when he’d sold his first dining table, seen his showrooms full, floor models changing faster than he’d even hoped, and after hours in that same showroom proposed and made love. Back then, he was always looking forward.
But in the past four months he’d risen so far that he wanted only continuity—to go on building furniture, watching the ocean. Entertaining Jacksbury once or twice a week. No pain or torture, of course. It could happen again, yes, but it hadn’t, and he saw no reason why it would.
Jacksbury said nothing and walked out to the veranda. She wasn’t talkative, but had a slow to surface warmth—never an intimidating remark, never a reminder of the truth of his servitude. She’d seemed genuinely interested when she noticed the end table he’d put beside the couch. He didn’t mind that her interest was probably part of Harg’s program to keep him docile. Perhaps Jacksbury also liked things the way they were. He knew so little about her, and he dared not ask.
The purchases, on the other hand, were almost dull in their random extravagance. He didn’t see why Jacksbury had felt the need to warn him. There were more collectible cards, sculptures and paintings, old books. He could understand how someone like Harg would struggle to find satisfaction. A 1901 Stickley armchair, a townhouse in San Francisco, a professional hockey team. Legally, Jesper now owned these things. Some he wished he actually did. Persian rugs, an espresso machine, intellectual property. He wondered how much time a day Harg spent shopping.
That evening he dined with Jacksbury on the veranda. They sat at a pine dining table Jesper had built, slatted for when it rained, and ate lentil soup with a baguette he’d baked earlier that day.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Could use more salt.”
“The bread or the soup?”
“I could add celeriac to the soup.” Jesper thought for a second. “It’s hard to find here. Do you mind if I order some from off the island?” Which was to say, did Harg mind?
“I doubt it.”
She couldn’t have sounded less bothered than that. Of course Harg didn’t mind, and as far as he knew, she didn’t seem to mind Harg.
“I’ll go ahead then.”
He often found himself waiting for her to say more. Each night she was over, there’d come a point where she’d focus on the water and tighten her lips, seemingly in concentration, looking for the right words. Then she’d exhale, smile briefly, and say nothing. Maybe it was hard to find a version she could say under Harg’s eye. Or, maybe it was an act to keep him from getting too bored. Either way, he’d decided, the company was nice. He was happy to go on waiting.
Later that night, after she’d retired to the guest quarters, his phone chimed. ‘Cloudlight Mach 13.’ Harg had mentioned in an early email that Cloudlight Mach was a family of patents. Apparently he liked to own them personally. Jesper purchased it directly from the seller and laid the phone back on the table. The night was clear. He could see the ocean miles out, where moonlight slid like oil over low and distant waves. His phone chimed again. ‘Cloudlight Mach 9,’ and before he’d put it down, ‘Cloudlight Mach 20.’
Harg had never before requested more than one purchase in a night. Cloudlight sounded technological, aerospacey, although Mach number made no sense in a vacuum. Maybe it had to do with takeoff from earth, or reentry. He made the purchases and laid his phone on the table, slightly annoyed. He knew he had no right to be annoyed. He wasn’t sure he had any rights in matters not aligned with Harg’s will. But it was hard to settle into ocean gazing when always expecting another chime. There was room for basic courtesy.
He searched online for ‘Cloudlight Mach,’ curious what new technology could be so urgent. The search results had just finished loading on his phone when the waves began to glow, ripples of moonlight pulsing so intensely that his vision blurred. His shoulder throbbed. He vomited on himself and the table. He couldn’t breathe. The waves were painfully bright, and then all was dark. He couldn’t move his legs enough to push back his chair, and his voice made no sound when he tried to call for Jacksbury.
“Wake up, Jesper.”
He opened his eyes. He was in his bed in the master bedroom. His head hurt, but his body felt okay. Harg smiled. Jesper thought he was there in person until he noticed the taxidermied elephant ear behind him. He realized that he was seeing Harg on a monitor he’d thought was a simple mirror. Jacksbury stood next to the monitor, motionless, expressionless.
Jesper remembered feeling sick and passing out. He remembered the first search result. “You made me buy rhino horns on the black market.” Cloudlight Mach was just the code name.
“Abhorrent, I know. There are so few black rhinos left. But I need to convince someone to let me build a spaceport in Calgary, and I just can’t think of a better gift.”
“I never agreed to that.”
Harg chuckled. “I’d assumed you had the sense not to pry. You never bothered before. But apparently you’re just incurious.”
Jesper wondered how much Jacksbury had known. She’d warned him earlier for a reason. It didn’t matter. “Never again.”
“I tried sitting in the chair you made me,” Harg said as he rose from one of his couches. “It wasn’t very comfortable. It made me wonder if it was an honest effort. Perhaps another ride on a freighter is in order.” Jesper resisted the urge to flinch, but Harg clearly noticed. He grinned. The levity was gone from his eyes, the creases more decrepit than gentle. “You had quite the heart attack last night. Natural causes, of course. Good thing you already have a will.”
So that was the full extent of Harg’s repairs to Jesper’s body: remote-controlled termination. Harg was obviously the will’s sole beneficiary. Jacksbury would know if Jesper made a new one, not that it would have made much difference. None of this was his, not the house or the food or the tools in his new workshop. He owned nothing because Harg owned him. He might as well have died on the freighter, or jumped in front of a Greyhound, or frozen on the sidewalk—all of which were worse ways to go than a heart attack. “So kill me.”
Jesper could see Harg’s jaw working beneath his smile. He heard a faint scratch. Beside the monitor, Jacksbury stood like a statue.
“I think you know that I’d rather not,” Harg replied. “For logistical reasons. But I’m willing to go through as many replacements as necessary.”
Jesper felt his stomach turn. He’d be sick, but not like last night. Harg would have his purchases. At best, Jesper could inflict some inconvenience, and at the cost of his life. And perhaps it was worth it.
He clenched his fists, breathed slowly. He remembered the many hours in his old workshop, his fiancée before the trial, the moment of the verdict. He’d felt relieved, unburdened at the time. It was the last he ever saw of his would be wife. He gazed at Jacksbury. She was a better last sight than he might have hoped for. He parted his lips to speak.
There was a soft tap, almost lost in the wind and waves. Jacksbury stood still save one finger, touching the wall and then returning to symmetry.
Harg took his phone out of his pocket and looked up at Jesper. “Well?” His finger hovered over the screen.
Jesper glanced again at Jacksbury. Nothing. But there had been something. He’d never know what it was if he died. “I would like to live.”
The gentleness returned to Harg’s eyes, though a question lingered.
“The next one is a ploughshare tortoise shell. To go on my coffee table.” Harg put away his phone, and the monitor was once again a mirror.
Jacksbury left without a word. Jesper sat on the bed. A few minutes later his phone chimed. ‘Cloudlight Mach 23.’ There could be one alive in the world for all he knew. He made the purchase, tossed the phone on the bed, and went to the bathroom to vomit.
Later that day, Jesper stood on the beach barefoot. It was January, and the ocean was cold. Not like winter in the city, but not pleasant. Erratic gusts of wind snapped the palm leaves. The sun shone bright over the ocean but provided no warmth. He squinted by reflex, ignoring the chill accumulating in his feet. He couldn’t stand to be in the house or the veranda or the workshop, where Harg might watch him at any time. Everything was tainted.
He had to find out what Jacksbury had to say. A scratch and a tap. He couldn’t think of a less significant pair of gestures. But nothing was accidental with Jacksbury. Maybe it was a feint, a distraction with no purpose other than to further his servitude. If so it wouldn’t work. He’d just refuse to make Harg’s next purchase and be done with it.
His feet were starting to hurt. Like walking through snow in torn sweatpants and sneakers he’d worn every day for a year. He felt himself becoming obsessed with Jacksbury. Either she wanted to help him or Jesper was going to die. She certainly couldn’t say it in the house.
He decided to go out on the bike, thinking exercise might help him see things more clearly. The bike leaned against a sawhorse in the garage-turned-workshop. He surveyed his tools and some unfinished tables and chairs, all sullied by his true purpose here. Harg wasn’t a sadist. He just liked evil things, and sometimes used sadism to obtain them.
He rode out onto the dirt path. He was dressed too lightly, and the cool air made his joints feel stiff. There was little point in worrying over comforts now. He stopped suddenly where the path turned to meet the road.
An old sail hung between two trees, flapping in the wind. It hadn’t been there the last time he’d gone out. ‘Donna’s Kitchen and Bath’ had been hastily painted over mildew stains. He pulled down the sail, tossed it into the trees, and took off toward Hamilton.
His clothes were matted with cold sweat by the time he reached the store. He left the bike lying on the sidewalk. The wind had made his eyes water, leaving dried streaks on his cheeks. Donna watched him enter with the same skepticism as before.
“I’ve come to regret our deal,” she said.
Jesper stared as he caught his breath.
“No one wants drawers with metal slides anymore,” she went on. “Just wood on wood from you.”
The compliment felt perverse against the revelations of the past twenty-four hours. “What do you want?”
Jacksbury stepped out from behind an oven and sink display.
“Something I’m sure you’ll agree to,” Donna said flatly.
That evening Jesper sat on the veranda watching the ocean. He wore a wool sweater and a pair of slacks he’d found in the master bedroom. He finished his dinner, refilled his wine glass, and waited. The leaves on the palm trees fluttered in the wind. Waves hewed into each other before reaching the shore, their whitecaps colliding in bursts of foam.
His phone chimed. ‘Cloudlight Mach 41.’
He looked at Jacksbury. She nodded once and returned her gaze to the ocean. Jesper wrote back ‘Sorry, insufficient funds.’
If Harg was feeling levelheaded, he had a chance. If impulsive, a fatal heart attack was moments away. Both moods struck Jesper as fundamental to a spaceflight tycoon. Jacksbury remained silent and still, save the slow nodding motion of her foot. She was nervous.
A moment later Harg appeared. The table cut him off at his waist. “Ten seconds to explain,” said the hologram.
“There isn’t enough money left.”
Harg took a phone out of his shirt pocket. Through the hologram Jesper could see the ocean churning.
“It’s not gone,” Jesper added quickly. “I just don’t have it.”
Harg smiled through gritted teeth. “Then who does?”
“I do,” said Donna as she entered the veranda from the beach. She left a trail of wet footprints on the floorboards.
“And why do you have my money?”
“I believe the money was Jesper’s before it became mine,” Donna replied. A scowl slipped through Harg’s grin. “I sold him some cabinets for around a trillion dollars.”
Jesper said, “I’ve done Arts and Crafts my whole life. I was in the mood for something more modern. I sold her a very traditional Mission Style end table, by the way.”
“Also for around a trillion dollars, I suppose,” Harg said, the rasp in his voice rising to a growl.
“That’s correct,” Jesper replied.
“So you traded money.” Harg extended a finger over his phone. “I’ll inherit a trillion regardless.”
Jesper gripped his chair in a moment of panic. His heart began to pound. Did he feel nauseous? There was a script, but no guarantee Harg would follow it. Perhaps there was a delay in the signal, and Harg had already murdered him.
“Minus a trillion,” Donna said. “We signed new wills at Bermuda International Bank this afternoon. Any money I paid to Jesper goes back to me if he dies, and vice versa.”
Harg withdrew his finger. The hologram sank a foot into the table as Harg sat on one of his couches. Jesper let out a trembling breath. He wasn’t dead yet. If Harg killed him, Donna would inherit everything in his account. If Donna died, Jesper would inherit a trillion from her.
“Then I suppose I’ll have to kill you both—starting with you, so Jesper can first receive his inheritance,” he said as he settled onto the couch. “Jacksbury.”
“Go ahead,” Donna said. Harg raised an eyebrow. “Although then you might upset Jesla Jimenez.”
Harg held up a hand, unaware that Jacksbury hadn’t moved. “And why would Jesla Jimenez care?”
“A couple years ago I sold her a kitchen island for two trillion dollars,” Donna answered. “You can guess why. I believe Jimenez Metals is the primary importer of moon ore. Jesla doesn’t appreciate…inconveniences. Or am I confusing her with someone else?”
Harg crossed his legs and chuckled to himself. He was trying to project calm, control. Jesper would have bought it, too, were the hologram not of such high quality. A cheaper system wouldn’t have showed the gritted teeth behind his smile, how firmly his fingers were dug into his couch, the depth of the wrinkles around his eyes, like cracks in marble. “I think a quick conversation with Jesla might clear up this…mess,” he said, almost snarling.
“Doubtful.” Donna shook her head at the floor. “I’ve done kitchen and bath work for quite a few of us…offshores.” She gestured to herself and Jesper.
“We’re all tangled up here on the island,” Jesper said. “My codicil actually specifies seventeen beneficiaries in addition to Donna, and each of them has their own set. You’d have to kill a few dozen of us to get everything back. I don’t think even you could manage that.”
“Screw Jesla Jimenez.” Harg threw his phone out of the hologram. “I’ll at least get some of my money back if I kill the two of you. Draw it out, Jacksbury.” He waited, quivering with suppressed rage. “Jacksbury!”
Jacksbury didn’t move from her seat. She glared at the hologram. “I’m not proud of a single thing I’ve done for you.”
“Jacksbury,” he seethed.
“My name is Jacqueline.”
Harg looked as if he would have gone for Jesper’s throat had he been physically present. “If my money is gone no matter what, tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” he shouted, “you useless bum!”
Jesper remained seated. He wanted to shout back, to tell Harg how little he thought of him, that he’d seen how petty and selfish he really was. But Harg could pick up his phone and kill him at any moment. If he got any angrier, he probably would. Jesper kept his expression neutral, his voice flat. He hoped his heartbeats weren’t audible. “Because I will give you an allowance of one billion dollars a week. I don’t want your money, but I need leverage. You’ll have almost of it back in twenty years.”
It was hard to imagine Harg surrendering, but he didn’t argue. He just glared. Jesper could almost feel his temperature rising. “Almost?”
“Minus the taxes I’ve helped you avoid, and minus one billion for each dead animal I’ve helped you buy. Those will go toward the establishment of the Harg Heggle Wildlife Fund.” Jesper couldn’t stop him. He didn’t see how anyone really could. But he hoped the attention would be enough to deter Harg Heggle, nature’s newest defender, from making any further acquisitions.
Harg said nothing. His breathing returned to normal, and his face regained its usual calm. He smiled, and soft, gentle wrinkles spread out from each eye, each rendered in perfect holographic detail. Jesper suddenly regretted addressing him so boldly. He’d been level but firm when he should have begged. He felt certain that Harg had intuited a way to recover his money and kill him outright. Death would come without notice or explanation, and perhaps for Donna and Jacksbury—Jacqueline—as well. He should have known better.
Harg smiled. At the end of a full minute he said, “Sure,” and the hologram blinked off.
They sat in silence for several seconds. Jesper felt deflated. Harg seemed to have acquiesced, but his tone had said otherwise. “I’m so sorry,” Jesper said as his eyes adjusted. He could see stars and the swaying silhouettes of palm trees. Waves crashed in the veranda’s glow, like wolves feinting toward a campfire. “It seems we failed.”
Jacqueline made a faint snort, just less than a scoff. Jesper turned to face her. Loyalty—unflinching and to Harg and Harg only—had to be the primary requirement of her job. He didn’t even feel betrayed, just stupid.
“You’re not going to die,” she said.
“Are you sure?” Donna asked. “Harg seemed pretty comfortable just now.”
“That’s his favorite tactic when he’s run out of ways to get what he wants—act pleased, sow doubt. It usually brings his opponents back to the table. I never really got why it was so effective until now.”
“Then we’re going to be fine?” Donna said.
“So it would seem.”
They waited for her to continue, but she only drew in a breath, tightened her lips, and stared out at the ocean. Jesper smiled to himself. It was like any of their nights together, except that they no longer cared if Harg was watching.
Donna unfolded her arms, said, “Looks like you two could use some time alone,” and walked into the house.
Jacqueline continued to stare, her face neutral, though Jesper thought he’d seen her blush at Donna’s exit. At the sound of the front door closing she turned. “I’m so sorry, Jesper.”
If she had blushed before, it wasn’t out of coyness. Misery, shame, fear—all were on her face. The only apologies Jesper had received in the past two years were from smiling people with no money or food to give him. He hadn’t expected to hear one now. “Are you still working for Harg?” He could hear the fear in his voice. He’d never stopped expecting a reckoning, he realized, when the springs would release and the trap would fling him further down than ever before. A final heart attack, another ride on a freighter, delivered by the only person he’d felt any attachment to in years.
“No.” She tried to smile, but it didn’t stick. “Never again.”
Jesper nodded, relieved, but before he could speak she said, “I’m sorry for keeping you here these past four months. And I’m sorry about the freighter. When I saw you in there…maimed…I didn’t know what Harg was planning, but I could have guessed that it was something terrible. I should have defied him, like you did. Years ago.”
She stood up and started into the house.
“Jacks—Jacqueline,” Jesper said, panicking.
She stopped. Jesper could see how tense she was, in the spread of her fingers, the odd angle of her arms. It was as if she’d forgotten how to stand. She angled her head to listen without eye contact. “Harg wanted me to sound like a butler,” she said.
“I forgive you.”
She turned to face him. “Just like that?”
“Yes.” More than yes. The memory of the freighter still hurt. It hurt Jacqueline, too. They’d both get over it with Harg gone. He hoped that the last four months hadn’t been all suffering for her because, in spite of the circumstances, he’d found the last four months wonderful. “Where will you go?”
She shrugged. She had nothing outside of Harg’s empire. Nor did he, except for a local furniture business and a very substantial bank account.
“Why don’t you stay here?”
“I’m surprised you can stand me.”
“Of course I can stand you.” As coolly as he could manage, he said, “I like you.” He didn’t want to sound too interested. But not disinterested, either. One essential modification presented itself. “I think I’ll buy a new house. One without any cameras in it.”
She let out a nervous laugh, walked back to her chair, and sat down. “I saw a place in Hog Bay yesterday. Three beds, three baths, new kitchen. Unfurnished.” Jesper nodded, smiling. “No hidden retinal scanners, palm or fingerprint readers, or microphones. And no optical topographers in the showers or pressure sensors under the floors.”
Jesper stiffened. He lifted his feet, grinned, and put them gently back on the wood. “That’s good.”
“And no wireless transmitter for the hundreds of nanochips Harg had implanted in your body.”
“This house is on sale now?”
“The realtor said I could view it tonight. Would you like to come with me?”