It was a slow morning at the Walker Funeral Home, just Carl and his carpet sweeper, the squirrel in the attic and Mrs. Kolb in the viewing room.
A young man dropped out of the ceiling.
"Man, I told you I’m not the thief or grifter," he said to the empty space six inches from Carl’s shoulder, one hand pressed to his ear. He looked to the left and right, untangling his limbs, brushing off his shoulders. "Yeah, yeah, Hardison do this, Hardison do that. Hardison, save us all."
"Can I help you?" said Carl.
The man looked at Carl, looked at the carpet sweeper, and then looked at the fine layer of dust settling on the carpet around him, his hand frozen in the middle of brushing more off his shoulder. "Look, man, I gotta be straight with you. I have been trying every angle to get into your system--phishing, Trojan horses, passive attacks, waterholes--can’t get in. It’s like you’re not even hooked up to the grid."
He slung an arm on Carl’s shoulder. "What’s your secret, brother? I’m dying to know."
Carl smiled. It was a rare sunny day in Portland, all of his doors propped open to let the warm spring air flow through. He leaned on his carpet sweeper and said, "That’s because we’re not hooked up to the grid."
There was a commotion of some sort in the distance, tinny like a radio set. Hardison stiffened in surprise, his mouth slightly open as he jerkily stares at the walls.
Walker Funeral Home was built in 1846, and Carl took pride in maintaining it just as it was--its painted wood siding, the thick wool carpet, the long and narrow oak pews, and its complete lack of wiring.
"I--" stammered Hardison, "You--It’s the age of the geek, man. How?"
"The bedrock’s too hard to run wiring through, I’ve been told," said Carl, taking pity on him. "And those who want to find me, will. Like you, Hardison." He steered the dazed man towards the reception room. "What brings you here?"
"Please tell me you at least have plumbing," said Hardison, settling heavily into a chair. Carl raised his eyebrows. "Actually, no, don’t tell me. Some things are better left in the dark. Anyway, we’d been getting a lot of referrals, which normally I’d be all over, you know what I mean?" He seemed encouraged by Carl’s nod. "But, like, it was a lot a lot, and none of it was from the channels I was monitoring.
"Turns out there’s a whole ‘nother network out there that’s dark to the internet," said Hardison, "Like the darknet, except that one I can make sit up and beg. This network was laid out by our mutual buddy--what’s his name?"
There was a different look to Hardison, a hard glimmer in his eyes that wasn’t there before. He looked like a man who had been bitten before by his friend’s mutual acquaintances and was now wary of any new ones.
"Nate Ford," said Carl, "Isn’t that right?"
"It is," said Hardison, "And how is it you know Nate?"
Footsteps carefully picked their way up the front steps.
"Um, hello?" said a woman’s voice. Matronly. Tearful.
"Coming," said Carl, leaning the carpet sweeper against a wall.
She hovered on the threshold of the funeral home, blinking at the sudden dimness. "I need to arrange a funeral for my--" Her voice cracked as she dabbed at her eyes with a sleeve, bird wrists poking out of them. "--for my daughter."
"Here, come and sit down," said Hardison, pulling out a chair. "I’m so sorry for your loss."
"She was--" She blew her nose with a tissue out of the box Carl offered her. "I’m so sorry, I’m a mess."
His heart went out to her. Too many children had been laid to rest through Walker, and today, it looked like there was going to be one more. Judging by the woman’s apparent age, the daughter couldn’t have graduated from high school.
"It’s alright. Take your time," said Carl. "How old was she?"
"She’s--" Her eyes widened at the tense. They all did. "She was--"
She took a deep, shuddering breath.
"I knew a boy, long time ago," said Carl, "Star point guard for his high school team, dean’s list student, prom king and queen with his girlfriend of three years. Kid had it all, you know?"
He surreptitiously handed her another Kleenex. "Recruiting service came ‘round sniffing for talent, you know? Promised the kid the world--a straight shot through college to the NFL. Just let him handle all the gladhanding and the paperwork.
"He said yes, of course," said Carl. The woman was breathing easier now. "Gave the recruiter carte blanche, signed anything that was put down in front of him. After all, what did a dumb kid from Orange County know?"
Hardison shifted in his seat. "Can I get anyone coffee? Tea? Mrs.--?"
"Yuen," said the woman, offering him a watery smile.
"Second door to your left," said Carl. "Turns out that wasn’t so smart. Clemson came knocking a month later about the kid demanding forty thousand to buy a new car. Ohio State showed up a week later, asking why the kid needed eighteen thousand in cash up front.
"Schools started getting scared. Scholarships started drying up. And the scout?" Carl made a poofing motion as Hardison returned with a steaming mug in his hand.
Mrs. Yuen, nodding her thanks as she took it, turning it in her hand. Her once-crisp ensemble was rumpled, Friday’s work clothes on a Saturday morning. "And then?"
"Colleges were blackballing him, and the kid felt like his name was dragged through the mud. He thought he had nowhere to turn. So one night, he took his mother’s Xanax--she’d just renewed her prescription--and a glass of water, and he--"
Mrs. Yuen choked out, "She was three months from graduating."
Carl nodded. Talking about it would always be hard, but the first time was the hardest. He’d been there before.
She gripped the mug so hard he thought he could see the glaze cracking. "She was young and beautiful and happy. But there was this coffee cake at her friends--" She took a deep breath, shaking her head. "Sorry. She was allergic to nuts. She was always so careful with reading the label."
"Sixty-three percent of baking goods are made in non-nut-free facilities," said Hardison, "Could get in trouble with the Feds if they don’t put that on the label. Could have a case on your hands."
"It couldn't be," said Mrs. Yuen, "It was a national brand, someone we've trusted for years."
"What brand?" said Hardison.
She listed a household brand and Carl watched as Hardison's fingers flew over his phone. "I'm seeing here that there have been twelve cases of severe nut allergies in connection with this brand--hold on." He grimaced at his phone. "Seventy two if you count all other brands under its parent company."
"Are you saying that Sandy's d--" The woman swallowed. Carl knew from experience that it would take a while before saying "death" after her daughter's name would come naturally. She rallied on. "--That what happened to Sandy wasn't an accident? Why isn't it all over the news?"
"Not many of them happened in the States," said Hardison, showing her the phone. Carl caught only a glimpse of a photo of a young boy, smiling into the camera. "And of the ones that did..."
"Cash settlements," she said. "Why would they ever take the money?"
Carl said, softly, "They must have thought it was an accident too."
"Good investment," said Hardison, "A couple hundred thousand is a lot for a family that sees only thirty rupees a day. And it's a lot cheaper than having to build a whole new factory for tens of millions."
Her coffee no longer steamed, probably growing cold in her twisting hands. She said, "But I'm just one person. I can't even afford a lawyer to take them to court. What can I do?"
Hardison leaned forward. "People like that, corporations like that--they have all the money, and they have all the power, and they use it to make people like you go away. Right now, you're suffering under an enormous weight. We provide--" He took her hand. "--leverage."
Carl walked her to the door. Hardison was still there when he came back, pacing around the cozy reception hall, talking, probably to his earpiece.
"--wanted it to do it just once. Can't a guy switch it up once in a while?" Hardison turned and saw him. His face grew serious. "Carl Walker. I looked you up, you know?"
Carl knew what he’d find. A failed attempt at taking his own life. An investigation by I.Y.S. Insurance on the behalf of a number of irate NCAA schools, an exoneration of Carl and a lawsuit against the recruiting service, which had duped other young men. A bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a short career in social work before he became an undertaker’s apprentice. If he was good, Hardison would also find the nest egg Nate had squirreled him from the recruiter’s off-shore account, enough to last Carl the rest of his natural life, as an apology for not being able to reinstate his basketball career.
"I was wondering why the coffee took so long," said Carl, hanging the clipboard back on the wall.
Hardison snorted. "Would’ve been faster if I could get more than half a bar in here. Your reception’s shit, you know?"
"It’s been said once or twice," said Carl.
Hardison clapped a hand on his shoulder. Soon, he and his whirlwind of energy would be back at the brewpub on Marshall, and it'd be a slow morning at the Walker Funeral Home again, just Carl and his carpet sweeper, the squirrel in the attic and Mrs. Kolb in the viewing room.