By David P. Rogers
Robin Jay Sparrow didn’t know why he was named after birds, except for his last name. Nathaniel Sparrow, his father, had died of a heart attack when Robin was three. His mother had loved to fly. She went up in her own small craft whenever she had time. Maybe she just liked birds, or maybe she envied them. But she died when the plane crashed. Robin was four then, so he never got to ask about his names. He was at home with a sitter when she died. His upbringing was overseen by a succession of nannies, tutors, and governesses hired by his rich, elderly grandparents.
Robin followed in the family business and became a banker when he graduated from college. He loved his job. He made lots of money and got to tell people what to do. He earned the respect of a few colleagues and was feared by many. If friendship was more than what happened when people found each other mutually useful for a time, he never learned the secret.
So when he was kidnapped, he assumed his captors wanted cash. He had never been kidnapped before but felt like he knew how to handle the situation. Money solved every other problem. Why not this one?
It happened in an undramatic fashion. Two big men pulled him into the back of a van before he knew what was happening, closed the doors, and said Go to the woman who was driving.
The van had no windows in the back. That much was like the way it happened in movies. He guessed the kidnappers couldn’t very well have him gesturing to bystanders for help. But they didn’t bother to tie his hands or blindfold him.
“What is this?” he demanded, indignation replacing surprise as the van spiraled down out of the parking garage. “Stop this vehicle and let me out.”
“Sorry, can’t do that. You’ve been neutralized, Mr. Sparrow,” one of the big men said.
“Whose idea of a joke is this? Did Weinstein hire you?”
“No joke, Mr. Sparrow.”
Outside the parking garage, the van stopped for a red light. Robin lunged for the door. Of course, it didn’t open. He banged his nose on the steel panel and fell back. A trickle of blood ran down his lip. The two big men smiled complacently at him.
The driver glanced at them in the mirror. “Everything okay back there?” Her seat and the empty front passenger seat were separated from the back by a heavy steel mesh.
“Fine, fine. He’s just a little restless.”
“All right, how much?” Robin asked when the van moved with traffic.
“How much what?”
“Cash. What else? I can have my assistant wire it to your account. Or drop off a bag full of hundreds. Whatever it takes.”
Nobody answered. They drove for a long time.
“Maybe you don’t know who I am. Maybe you think I’m just some nobody who happens to have a lot of money.” The city lay well behind them.
“We know very well who you are, Mr. Sparrow,” one of the men answered. Robin had noted the others called him Frank. That kind of detail would surely interest the police.
“Then you know the cops will be looking for me.”
“No, Mr. Sparrow, they won’t,” said the other big man, who answered to the name Leif.
“Because you are not missing.”
“People will need to see me. Important people.”
No one bothered to contradict him.
“How much money do you want?” he asked again.
“Nobody wants your money. That’s not what this is about.”
“What, then? You’re going to offer me a choice between the red pill and the blue one? Or tell me to choose a door, the lady or the tiger?”
“Just sit back and relax, Mr. Sparrow. We have a long drive ahead of us.”
He sat back. He did not relax. He could see the signs for exits. They passed a turn for the next city, and the next. Apparently, the kidnappers were not worried about his knowing where they were taking him. He wondered why that would be. None of the possible answers seemed comforting.
Frank and Leif were absorbed in whatever was on their phones. They ignored Robin’s further questions. He started to take out his own phone and text for help. Then he realized he should leave it in his pocket and hope they would forget to take it away.
They drove on. Robin was a long way from home.
“I have to urinate,” Robin said.
“How much longer, Brenda?” Frank asked.
“You’ll have to wait,” Frank said.
“I can’t wait that long.”
Leif handed him an empty soft drink bottle.
Robin found it impossible to pee in a moving vehicle in plain view of three strangers.
When they were close to the next city, Frank pulled a backpack from under the seat and took out a pair of clippers and some old clothes. They took his watch, keys, phone, and wallet, which held his credit cards and ID. Frank rummaged through the wallet, found a twenty-dollar bill, and handed it back to Robin. The rest went in the pack, back under the front seat.
“Time for a haircut,” Frank said, pushing a button to test the clippers. They hummed.
“Oh, no. That’s not happening.”
“You want Lief to hold you? Or do we need the handcuffs and rope?” Frank wasn’t smiling.
It was a simple buzzcut. Robin rubbed a hand over his nearly bare scalp. He felt naked. He looked down at the floor of the van. His hair lay there like the body of a small animal.
“Okay, time for a change of clothes.” Frank held out the other items from the backpack: torn jeans, a stained t-shirt, and scuffed athletic shoes.
Robin glanced at the clothes with contempt. He did not reach for them.
Leif stared thoughtfully at him and said, “You know, I was like you once. It’s always good to remember where we came from.”
“Privileged. Completely unaware of just how privileged I was. But it’s not where you start that counts. It’s where you finish. Now change your clothes.”
Again, Robin resisted. “Not ’til you tell me what you want. What this is about. You don’t want money, fine. You must want something.”
Frank held out the clothes and did not answer.
“Everybody has a price. Is it the Claremont deal?” Robin asked. “We can revisit that if we need to. Everything’s negotiable.”
“Put the clothes on, Mr. Sparrow.” He smiled a little. “But you’re right. That part’s negotiable. We can let you out in your underwear if you prefer. But the Brooks Brothers suit stays here.”
The clothes smelled like a thrift shop.
The van stopped by a bench at the edge of the park. “Get out,” said Frank.
“You’re turning me loose?”
“That’s right. For now. Be back for you at six tonight. The twenty should be enough for supper. Be here, ready to go, or you’ll spend the night in the park. Or wherever. There is a homeless shelter a couple of blocks over, but I don’t recommend it. If it’s not full up, you’re likely to get mugged. Or worse.”
Before Robin could think about what was worse than mugging, the door opened. Lief gave him a shove, and the van rolled away.
Robin went to find a police officer. He walked for fifteen minutes without success. It’s true, he thought. Never a cop around when you need one. He walked the circumference of the park, then slanted through to the other side.
A patrol car was passing in the street, slowing for a stop sign. Out of patience, Robin stepped off the sidewalk and banged on the hood of the car, then the passenger’s side window. The tires squealed briefly, and the car came to an abrupt stop.
The flashing lights came on, and the officer stepped out of the car, one hand on her pistol, the other holding pepper spray. “What’s the problem, sir?” she demanded.
“I’m Robin Sparrow. I’ve been kidnapped.”
“Robin Jay Sparrow. I’m the CFO of WHO Bank and Securities.” His hand moved to find his wallet and ID before he remembered they had been taken.
“Hands where I can see them!” The officer said sharply. Robin held them out, empty, realizing he had nothing but his word to prove who he was. The officer stared, sizing him up.
“WHO Securities,” Robin repeated. “Winthrop, Hearst, and Oliver. It’s one of the largest — never mind. Just call your boss if you don’t know what’s going on. I was kidnapped. They’ll be looking for me in three states by now.”
The officer talked into the radio microphone hooked to the strap on her shoulder. “Got a guy here — says his name is Robin Sparrow. Looks homeless but claims he’s some kind of big deal at a bank. Says he was kidnapped. Anything on that?”
A garbage truck rolled past. Robin could hear little that came out of the radio, but he made out the word delusional. A moment later, the officer said, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to take a seat here.” She walked around and opened the back door of the car.
“I’m Robin Sparrow,” he repeated. “Try again. I’m too important to go missing and have no one even notice.”
“No reports on that name. Now have a seat.” She stood by the door, one hand still on her weapon.
Robin looked down at the scruffy shoes and torn pants he wore and realized how she must see him. A homeless person with mental issues. She hadn’t even asked for ID. She must have assumed he had none.
He wandered the streets around the park, scared and befuddled. He realized he was starving. He had been on his way to lunch when they grabbed him. He never ate much breakfast. A street vendor sold him a hot dog and a bottle of tepid water for twelve bucks.
Robin was not married and had no children. His last date had been with a woman he promised to call but never did. Before that, he’d had a girlfriend who would not be glad to hear from him after their acrimonious breakup. Penelope, his assistant, might have left the office by now, but she was the only one he could think of calling. He tried to remember her personal number in case she didn’t answer. After his encounter with the police officer, dialing 9–1–1 was out of the question. The other bank officers would want to know where he was, of course, but he was too embarrassed to call them. He reached by habit for his phone before remembering it wasn’t in the pocket of the ragged jeans.
He’d circled the park again, past doors with double and triple locks and barred windows, back to the spot where the van had dropped him off. A young woman sat on a bench nearby, looking at her phone.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “but could I use your phone for just a minute?”
She glanced at him, taking in his appearance from head to toe, and shook her head no.
“I know how I look,” he said, “but it’s important. I really have to call someone.”
The woman stood and held up the pepper spray on her key chain. “Stay back,” she commanded and backed away.
He tried again, with similar results. So he watched for a chance, and when a middle-aged man who walked with a limp and a cane paused to look at his phone, Robin stepped behind him, grabbed the cane in his left hand, and with his right hand, pulled the phone from the man’s grasp.
Robin pulled the cane away, too. Perhaps, he thought, he could use it as a weapon, if necessary. The man swayed, almost fell, and regained his balance. He limped to a low rock wall at the edge of the sidewalk and sat, staring in puzzled shock.
“I’m sorry,” Robin said. “I can’t explain. But I have to make a call.” He felt like he should run away, but the man sat quietly, looking Robin up and down. “Can I just make the call and give the phone back to you?”
The man nodded and said nothing. Robin punched in Penelope’s number. She answered on the second ring.
“Thank the gods,” he said. “You’ve got to send a car for me. I’m … ” He looked around for a street sign and didn’t see one. “I’ve been kidnapped, and —”
“Who is this?” Penelope interrupted.
“It’s me. Robin.”
“Robin Sparrow. Your employer. Your boss. Now —”
“Mr. Sparrow is in his office and cannot be disturbed right now. I don’t know who you are, but if this is a joke, it’s not funny.”
“This is no joke. Now call Anderson and send a car, and call the police. In that order.”
“Oh, I’ll call the police. Because if this is not a joke, it’s some sort of attempt at fraud or identity theft.”
At that moment, a young woman approached the man with the limp, who was still sitting and watching Robin. “Dad, what’s going on? Why does that man have your cane?”
Robin had forgotten he held the cane, raised in what might have seemed a menacing manner, as if Penelope could see him gesture in frustration.
He dropped the phone and cane and fled.
The shadows were darkening, and streetlights were coming on when the van pulled up. Brenda rolled down the window. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Sparrow.”
“Wish I could say the same.” He felt like he should run. His feet ached, and his stomach was rebelling against the hot dog. If he moved, he would likely fall down or vomit — or both.
“Jump in, and I’ll get you to the hotel. Sorry to keep you waiting, but it’s been a hectic day. And not over yet.”
“Yeah, right.” He expected Frank and Lief to emerge and encourage him. They did not.
“You planning to sit there all night? You may have noticed it’s not the safest neighborhood.”
Robin got in the van. He and Brenda were alone. “Is anyone ever going to explain why you kidnapped me? What do you want from me?”
“Sure. Sorry about keeping you in the dark,” she said, glancing in the mirror and pulling away from the curb. “The boys are not very talkative, and I like to concentrate on my driving. Safety first, I always say.” She smiled and paused as if waiting for him to thank her for not crashing the van while he rode in it.
“Well?” Robin said. “How much?”
“How much what?”
“Money. You must want money. There’s no other reason to kidnap me.”
“Nobody wants your money. These days, money is just numbers in a computer, anyway. You know that in your business. We have access to all we need. Or could possibly ever need or want. We are not criminals. You have been neutralized, not kidnapped in any traditional sense. You are not being held for ransom.”
“Neutralized? What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re off the grid. You’ve been decommissioned. Taken out of circulation.”
“Then why? For what? I deserve to know that much, anyway.”
“Do you?” She glanced at him and smiled. “Well, it won’t hurt to tell you. Not now. You came up on the threat list, Mr. Sparrow. You had to be stopped.”
“Threat? What kind of threat? Stopped from doing what?”
“I’m not privy to that kind of information. Sometimes the intelligence is not very specific. But you turned out to be the key to preventing something that couldn’t be allowed to happen. So you had to be shut down, with minimal interference in the ordinary working of the world.”
“Preventing something? Please try to make sense. It’s been a long day.”
“Maybe it was a loan from your bank to a corporation that would poison a million people with a chemical spill. Maybe you were destined to be in an auto accident that would kill the doctor who will find a cure for the next pandemic. Like I said, Cleo doesn’t give me all that information. She may not know for sure, herself, beyond the fact that your life path had to be diverted.”
“Life-path? What sort of new-age mumbo-jumbo are you trying to sell?”
“Your destiny, if you prefer. Or fate. Call it what you will. But a change had to be made. Beyond that, I can tell you very little.”
“Well, I want to talk to your boss. This Cleo, or whomever you work for. And I need a phone.”
“Sure you do. We’ll see what can be done about all that when we get you to the hotel.” She glanced in the mirror and switched lanes.
“Why did you leave me to roam around all day?” he asked. “How did you know I wouldn’t go to the cops and tell them I’d been kidnapped?”
“Didn’t you? How did that go?” She glanced at him. He said nothing. “None of us is anything but appearances and possessions, Mr. Sparrow. Change how you look, lose the phone and wallet, and you are nobody—an unperson, as someone said. We didn’t steal just your identity, Mr. Sparrow. We took your life. You no longer exist.”
“It’s not that simple,” he said. “Questions will be asked. By powerful people. They’ll get answers.”
“Of course, they will. Your replacement knows what to do.”
“Replacement? It’s not possible.”
She handed him a phone. “Go ahead, call your office. Ask to speak to Robin Sparrow.”
“The office will be closed by now. Or maybe not. The police are probably there.” But Penelope’s words echoed in his memory. Mr. Sparrow is in his office and cannot be disturbed.
He didn’t know what to do with the phone. “So — what? You put some kind of double in my place? An impostor? That won’t last long. He can’t possibly know everything he would need to know to impersonate me.”
“You know there’s no such thing as privacy. Any secret is available for a price, or to ones who have time and the right computer skills.”
“Exactly. All I have to do is find a computer. My email, my personal bank accounts. Those don’t just vanish.”
“That’s right. They don’t. Do you think your usernames and passwords will still work? You’re a smart guy — you use complex strings of characters and change them regularly. I doubt you can remember them. At least not all of them. They’re written down somewhere in your office. What used to be your office.”
“You can’t fool everybody. Someone will know. The impostor is not me. Not even identical twins are exactly alike to the people who know and care about them.”
“And how many people are in that group, for you, Mr. Sparrow? The intersection of the circles that really know you and really care about you?”
“Someone will know,” he repeated. Her question made him uncomfortable for reasons he didn’t want to consider.
“Maybe. That happens sometimes. It can be dealt with. Nobody’s irreplaceable.” She pulled the van over in front of a tall building. “Here we are. Looks like they left the lights on for us.”
The name Hotel Delphi was chiseled in granite over the door.
He was left alone in the hotel room for three days. He could come and go as he pleased, on his floor, of which he was the sole occupant. The elevator never came when he pushed the button. It did come with trays of food on a stainless steel cart three times per day. On the evening of the first day, when the doors opened, he got in the car and waited for it to descend. It never moved, not before he awoke at midnight with a stiff neck, sitting on the stained carpet and leaning in the corner. He stood and went to use the bathroom. As soon as he stepped out, the doors closed, and he heard the car rattle downward.
The phone in his room did not work. He checked the other rooms and found the same. The shower, sink, and toilet worked, and more thrift-store clothes were in the closet. The TV had basic cable. He watched the news channels, expecting, or at least hoping, to hear of his disappearance. He did not.
The doors to the stairs were locked. The glass in the windows was apparently unbreakable. If anyone heard his cries and shouts for help, they ignored him.
Late afternoon on the third day, Brenda came to see him, accompanied by two guards he’d never seen before, armed with batons and pepper spray. One had some sort of firearm strapped at her hip. Brenda nodded to the guards after they let her in. “You can go. Mr. Sparrow is not inclined to be violent. Are you?”
He shook his head.
“We’ll be right outside,” said the guard with the pistol. Robin had thought of what to say if she or any human ever came to see him. The imaginary interactions ranged from bluster to further offers of ransom or threats of actual violence against his captors. At the moment, he found himself at a loss.
“I just wanted to let you know everything is going smoothly. Your replacement is doing nicely. You’ll be released in the morning, though we’ll be keeping an eye on you, of course. Do you have any questions?”
“Do I have … well, how about answers you never gave me before? Like why is this happening? What do you really want?”
“I meant questions I can answer. Like what time you’ll be leaving. How much cash you’ll be given, so you don’t starve on the first day out.”
“Well, okay. Start there. When do I get to leave?”
“Darren should be here by seven in the morning. He’s pretty busy on Thursdays, so don’t keep him waiting. He gets bad-tempered when he has to wait.”
“Darren. Very well. Where will Darren be taking me — to be locked in another hotel?”
“Of course not. As I said, you’re being released. Actually, you could have been released a couple of days ago. You wouldn’t have been allowed to wander around if there were any damage you could do. We’ve checked to make sure things were going as planned in what used to be your life — but then we had other issues to deal with. A little problem in South America had to be handled at once. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation. Touch and go there for a while, and you — well, we sort of forgot about you. I’m sorry. But things are back on track now. You were kept here for your own safety, mainly. The transition is difficult for some people.”
“So I’m being released. As in, free to go. No one’s coming to lock me up again?”
“Of course not.”
“How do you know I am no longer a danger to the world, if that’s really why I was kidnapped? That my fate, or destiny, or, what did you call it — life-path — has been adequately corrected?”
“We have access to certain information and technologies — magic, some would say, but why quibble over terminology — that lets us see the future. Or Cleo does, anyway. Not everything, but the big picture. The odd, unexpected crisis can arise, like this business in South America. Nothing we can’t handle, but it does keep us on our toes. You, however, have no major harmful roles left to play in the future of the world. You’re no longer a threat. That much is quite clear.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t still make a difference. A difference certain people will live to regret.”
Brenda smiled indulgently. “Look at yourself, Mr. Sparrow. Who do you think would feel threatened by you?”
He looked. A scrawny middle-aged man in baggy pants and no shoes. He hadn’t bothered to put them on this morning. His shirt had a ketchup stain from the fries that came with lunch.
“So what am I supposed to do? Are you going to give me back my wallet?
Keys to my house? Credit cards? Driver’s license? Some money, at least?”
“Darren will give you a small stipend for the first day, anyway. As for the house, driver’s license, and so on —” Brenda shook her head. “Those belong to someone else, now. Had you forgotten? What’s done can’t be undone.”
“I forget nothing,” Robin said. “Especially not about those who try to cheat or get the best of me in a deal.”
“Wear comfortable shoes, Mr. Sparrow,” she said, ignoring the implications of his long memory. “Maybe the boots. Jeans and a warm shirt. I’m not sure what kind of work you’ll find, but it will probably be outdoors.”
“Work? You plan to enslave me?”
Brenda laughed. “No, Mr. Sparrow. You’re free to sit in the park all day and sleep under the bridge if that’s what you prefer. You might even get the attention of the police that way, though if you try to tell them your story, how you are really a rich investment banker, and claim you’ve been kidnapped, they will assume you are mentally ill. As I expect you already know.” She glanced at her watch. “I have to run. Remember, seven a.m. sharp. Don’t keep Darren waiting.” She rapped on the door, which opened promptly, and Robin was alone again.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, he was awakened by a young man somewhat under thirty, Robin guessed, at 6:30 a.m. “Gotta go, Mr. S,” he said briskly. “Sooner, the better. They have to get the floor ready for the South Americans. Which sounds like no easy task, let me tell you. Glad I’m in transportation, not security. I’m Darren, by the way.”
Outside, Darren pointed. “Blue Pontiac.”
It was an ordinary sedan. They got in, and Darren said, “Where to, Mr. Sparrow?”
“What do you mean, where to?”
“Where do you need to go?”
“You can take me anywhere?”
“In that case, home. Take me home.”
“No, no,” Darren said. “Anywhere in this city. Within reason.”
“I don’t know. Just drive, then.”
After the car had circled the blocks around the hotel twice, Darren said, “Okay, I’ve got other pick-ups and deliveries to make. If you don’t want to go anywhere in particular, I’m going to have to let you out.”
“You have to give me some cash, anyway.”
“Oh. Right.” Darren handed him a twenty.
“Is that all?” Robin said. “How do you expect me to survive?”
“The way humans have survived for millennia, I imagine. As best you can.” He shrugged. “I’m just a driver. I leave hard questions for the big shots in Strategy, Logistics, and Finance. But if you want more money, I know a guy hires day laborers out of the parking lot behind the hardware store.” He pointed. “I can drop you off if you want.”
“Day laborers? You expect me to do manual labor?”
“Up to you, Mr. S. Always has been, always will be.” He pulled over and stopped the car in the store’s parking lot. He gestured to a line where battered-looking men were queuing up. Some women and kids who looked barely old enough to be out of school also waited, Robin noticed. He did not get out of the car.
“Best jobs go fast,” Darren said. “Not everybody gets picked at all, some days. I’d grab a spot real quick if I were you.”
Robin got out and stood in line.
Robin and several others were taken from the parking lot to a construction site. The job was brutal. At least to Robin, it seemed so. His fellow workers looked stoic or actually glad to be there. He and three others were told to gather an array of bricks and concrete blocks and stack them neatly in a corner by the fence.
Robin’s fingers soon grew raw from handling the materials, which were dusted with sand, concrete dust, and a black grit he could not name. One of the other workers saw his hands and held out a pair of cotton gloves.
“Not as good as leather,” the worker said, “but they’ll help.”
“How much?” Robin asked.
“They help as much as they help.” The worker, a man about fifty years old, shrugged. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
“No, I mean, how much do you want for them?”
“Just let me have them back when we’re done here.”
Robin took the gloves and stared at them as if they were alien artifacts.
“On second thought, just keep them. You look like you could use a break.”
“You’re not being paid to socialize. Get back to work!” the foreman shouted from across the site.
The work day ended. For their hours of back-breaking labor, Robin and his coworkers were paid an amount less than he would once have tipped the servers at restaurants where he was used to dining.
At the curb outside the construction site, Robin stood, uncertain of which way to go.
The worker who had given him the gloves stopped beside him. “Name’s Arron Hudson,” he said and held out his hand.
“Robin.” He shook Aaron’s hand, wincing as his raw fingers protested. Then, for reasons entirely inscrutable to him, except that his life as Robin Sparrow was over, he added, “Robin Spartan.”
“Waiting for the bus? It’s late a lot.”
“No, someone’s picking me up,” Robin lied. Why waste bus fare when he didn’t know where to go?
“Coming back tomorrow?” Aaron asked.
“Unless the butler forgets to wake me up so I can get to the hardware store on time, I’ll be here.” He held out the gloves. “Thanks for the loan.”
“Like I said, keep ’em. You’ll need ’em.”
“Thanks,” Robin said. The bus pulled up, and Aaron got on. Robin was surprised and embarrassed at how grateful, almost tearfully so, he felt at the simple act of unrequested kindness.
When the bus was out of sight, he walked on aching feet back toward the homeless shelter he’d been told about. A cab was out of the question. He thought of going back to the hotel, but the memory of being locked up for three days loomed too large.
By the time he reached the shelter, his feet were simply numb. They refused to get in the line that formed outside the door. As evening gave way to night, he went on toward the park, where big trees threw deep shadows. He sat down to try to think, resting against the trunk of a big maple in an out-of-the-way corner beyond the playground, and awoke to birds singing and sunrise.
Robin, Aaron, and a worker named Janice, whose integrity Aaron vouched for, went together to rent a room too tiny for three people, but it beat sleeping in the park or shelter. They usually had enough money left over to feed themselves.
More months passed.
Robin checked the news often, scrolling on a cheap phone he could barely afford or using a computer at the free public library. Robin Jay Sparrow was occasionally mentioned in the financial reports when he commented on the rise or fall of a trendy corporation or tech wunderkind.
Apparently, Brenda had been right. The new Sparrow was doing fine in Robin’s old life. Except it wasn’t the life it would have been. He passed on investments the old Robin would have made, choosing wind and solar projects over oil companies, funding scholarships and charities that went far beyond what was useful for tax write-offs and feel-good publicity.
The new Robin didn’t cause any tragedies.
A year had passed since Robin Jay Sparrow was pulled into an unmarked van in a parking garage.
Robin Spartan went back to the Hotel Delphi. Darren sat in the lobby near the locked door. He opened it when Robin tapped.
“Mr. Sparrow — surprised to see you here.”
“Actually, it’s Mr. Spartan now. Or just Robin. But why aren’t you out delivering misguided bankers or CEOs to their new destinations?”
“Got promoted,” Darren said morosely. “I’m in security now. More responsibility, but it’s better karma. Or so I’m told by people smarter than me. Hope they’re right. I’d rather be driving.”
“Is Brenda here?” Robin asked.
“Sure. You want to see her?”
“She’ll want to know what it’s about.”
“We have … unfinished business.”
“I also have to search you. Scan you with the metal detector, anyway. My new job, you know.”
“Mr. Sparrow. Good to see you again,” Brenda said. “We’ve been very busy, or someone would have followed up with you. How is the world treating you?”
“I’m not Sparrow anymore. Sparrow was decommissioned. My version, anyway. Did you forget?”
“No. But like I said, we’ve been busy.”
“My name is Spartan now. Robin Jay Spartan.”
“Well, Mr. Spartan, what can I do for you?”
“It’s not what you can do for me. Or not only what you can do for me. It’s what I can do for you. You need me.” Robin said. “I’m not quite sure what you do, other than stop people you think are dangerous or why you do it, but I can help.”
“Help? How? More importantly, why?”
“I know you’re trying to change the world for the better. I’ve seen what the new Robin does — and does not — do in my place. What used to be my place. He doesn’t do what I would have done, but it’s working out well for him. For others. For the world. Anyway, I still have skills. I can read a technical stock chart and predict where the price will go better than ninety-five out of a hundred brokers. I know quite a bit about corporate law, and I can even code a little. Once wrote an app, just for fun, to scan the markets and pick bargain stocks. I get the feeling your organization is not in it for the money, but even you must have bills to pay. Like I said, I can help.”
“That answers one question — how do you think you can help? Not why. You suddenly want to make the world a better place after decades of thinking things were pretty much okay as long as you were rich?”
“Not suddenly. Nothing sudden about it. A year of manual labor and wishing you could afford jelly to go on your peanut butter sandwich, but really, you’re lucky to have bread … well, that year can feel very long.”
“You don’t imagine you’re the first semi-reformed tycoon to offer us their services, do you? It doesn’t take long for your kind to figure out that the knowledge of the future we have access to here could be used to make a fortune. Or that pretending to help might be a good revenge tactic: hostile takeovers, those sorts of Wall Street games. We once dealt with a CEO who managed to gain access to a bank account we’d overlooked when we decommissioned him. He thought he could buy the hotel and have us evicted. Didn’t work, of course. Poor silly man.”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way. Honestly, though, speaking of the future, I have wondered — if my future was predictable, my life path, as you called it, does that mean I don’t have free will? That I’m just playing out a script someone else wrote?”
“Call it free will, or call it fate. Whatever you like. We all make more or less predictable decisions based on who we are. Some people don’t know who they are, so their choices are surprising, even to them. But, predictable or not, your choices are yours and no one else’s. Everyone’s choices are their own. Circumstances may restrict your options. You didn’t choose to be born privileged. You didn’t choose to meet me and Frank and Leif. We restricted your options when we altered your life path — but you still make choices. Without the privileges you took for granted, you were not that different from billions of people without enough resources. But as long as you’re breathing, you can make choices. For example, nobody made you come here today, did they?”
“Yet here you are. Maybe Cleo was right about you. You may yet make some significant positive contribution to the world.”
“Who’s Cleo?” Robin asked. “What did she say about me?”
“Cleo is … the seer. The magician. Or the prophet. Maybe she’s just the smartest scientist around, one who has far more insight into society and human nature than anybody else. Writes algorithms for the computer, too, ones that no one else can follow, but they work. Anyway, she said you had to be diverted from the path you were on, but she also said you’d find a much better one. Or so she thought.”
“When can I meet her?”
“Maybe never. Maybe after you prove yourself.”
“Well, tell her she was right, then. Just give me a chance. I’ve learned some things about the value of money — what it’s worth and what it’s not worth, in the last year.”
“Well, for one thing, I learned you can’t buy friendship. Anyone who’s for sale is, by definition, not your friend.”
“True. Those facts are easy to say, harder to live by. You’ll have to start small and work your way up. Prove yourself. Show that you can be trusted.”
“As long as I can help make the world a better, more fair place, starting small is fine. I understand Darren’s been promoted. If you need a driver, I can do that. I’ll mop floors if that’s what you need. As long as it takes.”
Brenda still looked at him with an air of mild surprise, as if he were a novelty of some sort, the cat who learns to flush toilets or the dog that can apparently count to ten. “Like the poet said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I’ll talk to Cleo and see what she thinks. Meanwhile, our custodian is out with COVID. Darren said the carpet in the lobby is in dire need of cleaning. You’ll find the vacuum in the closet down the hall.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Spartan.”