Short Story: “Face Value”

Look Deeper. What you don’t know may be far more interesting than what you do. (This series of business stories on the aftermath of the Financial Meltdown started in “As Is“)

“Face Value”
part 4 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
[04/12/2008]

“She told me it was a buzzerfly, Mr. Spordling.”

Ryan Svorlin smiled at Amathea’s latest mispronunciation, and set the clump of siskiyou blue he was holding into the hole she’d dug for him. He’d started re-landscaping the grounds of the enormous house he’d won in the L.A. mortgage lottery soon after burying its former owner. Gregory Davis’s smelly corpse was still hanging over the kitchen sink when Ryan opened the door for the first time, and he’d stayed in that spot as a local tourist attraction until a visiting former congressman offered to help plant the suicide in his own garden. Taking over a house, ‘as-is’, in the days after the big financial meltdown, could hold more surprises than it did when Davis was still scamming people with specious investment schemes. Happily, if you could call it that, the bloated debt-based market had finally had a correction large enough to put an end to the hegemony of the dollar, and life went on after a fashion.

“A what, kitten?”

Amathea looked up at him for a few seconds, and then pulled a clip from her hair. “A buzzerfly. Like this.”

The pattern on the thin plastic wings struck Ryan as a miniature, robed monk surrounded by a saffron glow, and tipped with rings of stars in a brown sky. While it was nestled along her braid rows, it had seemed as lifeless as Davis, but now, with its young owner flitting it over the plants in the box that sat beside her, it was more like an itinerant preacher spreading wisdom among the leaves. “What did your mother say was like a butterfly?”

“My name. She said this buzzerfly has the same name as me.”

A shadow crossed Amathea’s pretty brown face as she was clipping the butterfly back into her hair, so she turned to look up at the pale man that had stopped on the sidewalk beyond the bed.

“Excuse me,” the man said amiably, setting down his battered attaché case. “I’m looking for the Davis house. Is this it?”

Ryan rose. He began to extend a hand in greeting, but froze in recognition, and clenched it instead. “I know who you are, Conklin.”

“That’s great. Then you won’t mind my asking-.”

“Actually, I do, Peter. Aren’t you supposed to be in prison?”

“Well, I was. Until recently, anyway. But it turned out someone needed me sprung, so here I am.”

“Here you are, indeed. Back at the home of the man you did some of your best work for. Well, you’re a bit late. Gregory Davis had a last minute change of heart, and left a cornucopia of evidence behind, a treasure trove of files that you seem to figure quite prominently in.”

He glanced down at his case. “Those phony bonds. Of course.”

Ryan motioned Amathea to keep behind him, and then stiffened, his arms crossed in defiance. “Davis had some samples of your work in his safe, not that they’re worth anything. There was also a rather fat digital scrapbook, featuring your prime-time perp-walk and the trial he was so conveniently kept out of. Did you enjoy being the fall-guy for that scheme?”

“Not particularly,” Conklin said, visibly bristling at the memory. “But while it lasted, the money was good. Now, of course…”

“So how did you get free? Did the people who needed you pay someone off, or did they just blow a hole in the wall for you?”

“You don’t understand. It wasn’t like that. And besides, all I wanted was to ask if you had any rooms to let. I was told that-.”

“What? That the jerk that won Davis’ digs would welcome you into his home? Look, just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I have this uncontrollable urge to rub shoulders with a counterfeiter. You’re not exactly the sort of person I’d want to trust around children.”

Conklin looked pained, and closed his eyes. A moment later, he craned past Ryan for a look at Amathea. “Is that Cristall’s little girl?”

Ryan huffed. “Thorough, aren’t you. But I should have expected that you’d do some research before trying to bluff your way inside. So let me put that little pipe dream to rest. Neither I, nor Cristall Bellows, have the least little desire to find you lurking in the shadows at night. And I certainly wouldn’t trust you around her daughter.”

“Why not?” a woman said from beside him. “I would.”

“Cristall!” Ryan said, surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you until almost dinner.”

She turned to Conklin. “Peter, is he giving you a hard time?”

“You two know each other?” Ryan said, incredulously.

“Of course,” she said, kneeling to hug her daughter. “Who do you think sent him over here?”

“But don’t you realize who he is? What he’s done? Why would you-?”

Conklin turned his palms up. “I tried to explain.”

She rose, carrying her daughter, and stepped closer, until she was nose to nose with Ryan. “Do you trust me?”

“Well, sure. But that doesn’t mean-.”

“Would I do anything to put Amathea at risk?”

“Not knowingly. But the whole point of a confidence game is to get people to trust inherently untrustworthy people. You don’t know this man.”

“Oh. And you do?”

“Well, not personally. But I’ve seen the reports. I know what he’s capable of. An awful lot of people lost their life’s savings investing in the fraudulent stocks and bonds he created.”

“That may be, Ryan, but where I work, he’s considered something of a hero. So cut him a little slack, okay?” She stepped back a pace, and turned towards Conklin. “Sorry about that, Peter. Did you bring it with you?”

He nodded, and kneeled beside his attaché. Opening it, he extracted a large envelope and handed it up to her.

“What’s in that,” Ryan asked suspiciously.

“A present for Amathea. There’s more to her name than just a butterfly.” Conklin massaged his left calf for a moment before returning to his feet. When he did, he nodded towards the house. “Would you mind if we sat on the porch? I can only stand comfortably for so long at a go.”

Ryan followed the others, feeling a bit out of place in his own home, and eager to do something to rectify the situation. While Cristall and Conklin were settling in on the padded bench that was built onto the house, he went inside and brought out a round of iced tea. Once the glasses were set out, he pulled up a wicker chair and joined them. “You were saying about Amathea?”

At the sound of her name, Cristall’s daughter scrambled out from under the table and stood on the bench between the two adults. “Yeah,” she said excitedly, what else am I?”

Conklin smiled at her, and laid his hand over the envelope. “No peeking until I’ve told the story, okay?”

She nodded gravely. “Okay.”

“Well, besides being part of the name of the butterfly you’re wearing, your name also has roots in Greek mythology. Have you ever heard about them?”

She turned to her mother. “Have I?”

“Sure. Don’t you remember we talked about the pictures you can see in the stars? The constellations?”

She looked up into the hazy Los Angeles sky, smiled, and nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “Amathea was one of a big family called Nereids that helped sailors to survive dangerous storms in a place called the Aegean Sea. One day, the goddess Rhea had a son named Zeus. But she was afraid that his father, Kronos, would hurt him, so she asked Amathea to keep him safe, and raise him for her.”

Amathea frowned. “Why would Kronos do that? Didn’t he like Zeus?”

Conklin smiled. “People are still arguing about that. When you’re older, you’ll discover that there are new things that you can learn from stories you thought you already knew. And trust me, this is one of them. Anyway, after Zeus grows up, he thanks her with a pretty amazing gift. It’s a goat’s horn that will give her anything she desires. So I drew you one.”

Cristall opened the envelope and slid a sheet of paper out. At first glance, it seemed to be a richly illustrated, realistic-looking horn, set against what looked like a rough-hewn plank table. The textures he’d drawn were simply amazing. But there was something odd about the business end of the horn. The profusion of imagery tumbling out of it was nearly hypnotic. Instead of portraying specific objects, as she’d seen it depicted elsewhere, Peter Conklin had created a field of intricately layered patterns that challenged her imagination to conjure all manner of things in the same place. Gazing at the drawing was like seeing shapes in clouds, or in the textures of a sand-painted wall.

She looked up at him. “This is amazing.”

Amathea’s hand floated above the textures. Then she tried to touch something that wasn’t there, and fell into a happy giggle. “Thank you. It’s wonderful.”

“You’re quite welcome, my lady” he said, affecting a formal nod.

Ryan shook his head slowly. “I guess I was wrong. Nobody who can create something that beautiful could be irredeemable.”

“Then you’re okay with me being let out of prison?”

“Sure, but it also means I’ve got some thinking to do.”

“Oh? About what?”

He pointed to a tree near the corner of the house. “My benefactor, for a start. Despicable as he was, Gregory Davis did recognize fine craftsmanship when he saw it.”

Conklin shrugged. “So what? People in all kinds of professions have had their talents misused. Tech types building weapons… lawyers skirting the law… artists, writers and musicians manipulating people’s emotions to benefit some jerk with the power and wealth to have his way. But every one of them had to overrule their objections, to swallow their pride at one time or another in order to earn their next meal. Davis never had to deal with that. He, and those like him, did it out of greed and a lust for power regardless of the cost to someone else.”

“There is one thing I don’t get, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Cristall said you were considered a hero where she works.”

Conklin looked away, embarrassed.

“He is, Ryan,” she said. “If you think about it, none of what the city government has been able to do since the collapse of the dollar would have been possible if it hadn’t been for Peter.”

“If I hadn’t been handy,” Conklin said quietly, “it would have been someone else. It’s not like I’m the only engraver in Southern California.”

“Maybe not,” she said, “but for my money, you’re the best.”

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Ryan prodded. “What is it that you do?”

“Nothing special. Look, I came here to ask about a room. Cristall told me there were still a few left. And you don’t have to worry about getting paid. I work for the city now.”

“He’s right,” Cristall laughed. “I know that his money’s good, because it’s my job to tell people about it. Yeah. That’s right. Peter’s the guy who designed those L.A. Angels I’ve been paying you with.”

Conklin held up both hands. “Guilty as charged.”

“I don’t know,” Ryan said, in mock suspicion. “How will I know if you’re paying me with real money?”

“I guess you’ll just have to take them at face value.”

THE END

[Afterword: The sequence continues in “Round“. Or for a taste of corporate pay-back, try “Logical Conclusion]

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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