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Fling But a Stone


Mark Rich

Though thrilled to be in the Glass House, the fabulous restaurant hanging midway down the Glass Valley of New Dearborn and turning there slowly like an elaborate ornament on a crystal Christmas tree, he wondered why he, Hiram Daugherty, mere stringer, received so forceful an invitation to have breakfast with the highest of the high at the Daily?

First, last night, he snagged that elusive magazine, News to the World, after eleven months of trying, and felt a million miles high just running his eyes over its high-tech pages. Now he sat here with Courtnelle Basilprop herself.

“If you’re wondering,” said Basilprop, “why you’re here—”

“I am.”

She smiled, with a bit of steel behind the smile. She seemed about his height, a few inches short of six feet, with carefully straight, light brown hair in stark contrast to his haphazardly curling bird’s nest. She dressed in Corporate Calm, with none of the flash-panels so common these days on the lower streets. He wore his old-fashioned pale denim and white shirt—just what he happened to have on, when the summons arrived.

“It’s because of an unauthorized purchase,” she said.

“A purchase?”

“You bought a magazine last night.”

“Unauthorized, you say.”

“That’s right.”

“Ms. Basilprop, this is a free country.”

News to the World is not free.”

“Darned right it isn’t. Cost me what I earn from the Daily in about a month—”

“You’re a stringer with us, aren’t you, Hiram?”

“That’s right.”

“What was your purpose in buying that?”

“Purpose? What purpose do I need? Everywhere you turn—on the news, in the pages of the Daily itself, in all the hottest venues, if you really listen closely, you discover everyone talks about what News to the World talks about. It’s the yardstick. Everyone measures themselves against it.”

She leaned back. “You yearned for the better things? You wanted to measure yourself against it, too?”

“You don’t understand. It was a challenge. It was in my head—oh, long ago—to buy one. Just to see. I was willing to dig deep, just once, to get one in my hands—but I couldn’t. No newsstands carry it, except in the middle of New Staten and in Chicago’s Two-El shops. And those shops—first, they say I have to use a credit card. Then they say they’re out of stock.”

“How did you finally get the one you did?”

“How do you know I did?”

She smiled without humor. “It was brought to my attention. Why don’t you answer my question?”

Hiram absorbed the gentleness and the chill of her words before proceeding.

“I was making my latest effort to buy one,” he said carefully, “and this time the clerk gave it to me. I just handed her my card, and she handed me a magazine. Later I discovered that was right in the middle of that crazy half-hour—”

“Oh, of course,” she said, leaning back. She closed her eyes briefly. “Should have known. The Glitch. We’re not going to forget that soon, are we?” She halfway permitted herself a smile again. “Pages fifteen through thirty of the Daily—you saw the stories running upside down and mirror-inverted for two hours afterward?”

The momentary breakdown—a concerted attack, some speculated—to City Central’s governor had caused myriad difficulties across the artificial island: subways bypassed stops, a trolley rammed a car, a promo zeppelin snapped a radio tower, and outages affected part of the Glass Canyon itself.

“It became clear to me, in retrospect,” Hiram said. “I got my copy by accident.”

“That’s right.”

A settled look fell over her. Hiram could see from her eyes and posture he had about spoken enough. Thinking back, in fact, it surprised him how voluble he had been, in the presence of such editorial power.

“You need to understand several things, Hiram,” she said. “Do you know who owns the Daily?”

“A consortium. Postawara Publications is just part of it, right? Can’t remember the name.”

“The name doesn’t matter. It’s a facade. The real owner’s News to the World.”

Hiram blinked.

News to the World,” said Basilprop, “is the owner, and it looks askance on this little episode in the extreme. It asked me to look into this personally.”

“This is going too far. First there’s that call from the shop saying I had a defective copy and would I please return it.”

“They’d have taken it, promised a second copy in the mail, and instead have returned your payment, probably with interest.”

“—then someone rummaged my apartment. What’s going on?”

“Maybe it hasn’t sunken in, Daugherty. News to the World owns this building. It owns the Daily. In a sense it owns me, and a part of you—but only part, since you write for other newslinks, too, and other papers? Right? But what do you know about News to the World? Not much. No one is supposed to know too much. But News to the World commands the highest advertising rates in the world. It gets those high rates. Not the slightest hesitation on the part of the advertisers when it comes to paying. Why? Because News to the World guarantees—guarantees—every one of its buyers earns over a million dollars a year. Guarantees. How does it do that? It controls its outlets, and permits sale only by credit card or fund transfer. If your credit rating or bank account record doesn’t lead the vendor to records indicating you have an income in excess of a million a year, Daugherty, the transaction’s off. Out of stock, sorry, sir: they’re supposed to say that. You never get the magazine—until something happens like the City Center breakdown, when somehow a credit check of your card led to mistaken approval.”

“So how did you find out?”

“As I said, News to the World guarantees. It double-checks every transaction, routinely. Yours didn’t check out. Big surprise, eh? We know your income, even what you earn from your work outside the Daily. We know your buying habits, your usual restaurants, and your favorite stores and entertainments. If just one advertiser gets wind of the fact that you bought the magazine, there’ll be hell to pay. Just because one person with inadequate income bought it.”

“I understand that,” said Hiram, “but not why it should matter. It was an accident, right?”

“We can’t afford a slip-up. If it gets out that not just anybody, but an employee of this company bought the issue—well, you see my position. My neck’s on the line. That’s why I brought you here.”

Hiram knew well what this cost. About as much as an issue of News to the World to dine here, in the Glass House with its spinning view of the Glass Valley.

“What would you have me do?” he said.

“Take it to the shop, and return it. The return will be tied to your credit record, and all will be well.”

“What good will that do? The advertisers are concerned about the purchase, right? How can you erase that? You can’t. It’s a done deal.”

Certainty filled him suddenly: he had struck a blow on behalf of common folk. Through simple perseverance, then coincidence, he had started eroding this edifice of the elite-most, the News to the World, simply by disrupting its demographics. Once the demographics lost their halo of purity, advertisers would call the magazine’s claims into question. Once that happened, the stranglehold the lofty magazine held on the world—at least the world covered by the Daily—would loosen. Who knew what might happen then?

He imagined himself a hero to those people never seen through these windows: the working stiffs, the eight-to-fivers, the low-pay wage-monkeys. From here, you could see countless acres of mirrored glass, from street level to a point high above, where a few tiny patches of blue sky hung among the glass panels like the lone colored tiles in a vast mosaic of shifting, white light.

While you sat, you saw more of the same, as the restaurant slowly turned on its pivot: glass, in curved and flat panes, and little else.

“You see it doesn’t matter, any way you approach it,” Hiram went on. “Because the world already knows. As you said yourself, I write for more than one outlet. I’m just a stringer for the Daily, and I make up the rest of my living writing for other places, including an e-zine called The Rake. Got a regular gig there. Wrote my latest one last night in a heat to meet deadline, and posted it directly onto the zine page. It was about my year-long search for a copy of News to the World. And about my success.

“More than eleven thousand people tap into The Rake the first night of each release. We’re pretty hot. Another twenty to thirty thousand tap in the next morning, when they get copies of the tease sheet in their e-mail. Of those, a good fraction look at my column. Probably sixty to seventy percent. I can get you figures if you want.

“The thing is, probably all the readers know little old me bought a copy of News to the World, because it’s right there in the teaser. That’s why I wanted to find out how you knew. To see if you were a reader.” He grinned at her frozen expression. “Now, take this into account. Since The Rake appeals to educated people, the chances are mighty good your Fortune Ten companies have employees who read it. That means their advertising departments probably already know that some poor twit on a hamburger budget bought a copy.”

News to the World could easily buy out the whole enterprise,” said Basilprop, gingerly touching her forehead as if surprised at the perspiration beading there.

“Like hell. What’s published is already out there.” Hiram lowered his voice. “It’s done and over with. News to the World can no longer make its guarantee. There’s nothing you or I can do about it.”

Basilprop’s face tightened. “You leave me no choice.”

Stiffly, she stood.

Watching her walk decisively from the table Hiram knew better than to move. Where would he run? She conferred with a gentleman in a dark suit, sitting with a couple toughs. Could he get past them? No. Could he jump out a window? If he guessed correctly as to the nature of those windows, then no, again—not that it would be worth plummeting the quarter-mile to the street below.

All for the sake of buying a magazine. Was this so important to his values? Was he willing to forsake his job, and the meager stability his life had finally achieved, just for the sake of a stupid magazine that catered to the uppermost flakes of the upper crust?

The dark-suited man scowled, nodded, and spoke briefly into his palm.

Basilprop wheeled and returned. Hiram steeled himself for the worst. He wondered if he would ever be permitted to resume his old life, to live on his own plane of existence, to go about his duties and pleasures as if this episode had never happened.

“It’s done,” she said. “Now we can order our brunch.”

What’s done?”

“I gave orders that your credit limit be raised to seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, in a credit appraisal via a bank in Hong Kong. Point-of-origin information for the transaction will bear yesterday’s date. Rather it does bear yesterday’s date. You are also now on payroll for a salary of one million and one dollars per year, direct deposit, as a columnist. Undoubtedly we have needed a talented writer such as you.” She smiled dryly. “It’s yours, if you want it. You can now be one of—us.”

Hiram shivered at her words. When the waiter brought the menus, his eyes boggled at the prices. The orange juice alone—

“By the way,” she said to him. “I changed my mind. You’re buying.”


Coffee did little to clear the fog over his mind. Having finished his breakfast, more exquisitely prepared than his tongue was prepared to acknowledge in his all-systems-down state, he excused himself from the table. Some peers had wandered over to discuss matters with Basilprop anyway.

He carried his amazingly costly coffee nearer the window, to stare out at the passing expanses of mirror.

Could he accept this? Did he have the choice? Of course he had the choice. Yet could he exert that choice? Could he actually turn down an improved livelihood like this, after struggling to achieve it by other means? He rattled down through a list of things he could do, now. Overwhelming. The things he might undertake, just having so good an income—things that mattered . . .

Congratulations,”—a dimly heard word through the fog, from one of the stellar personalities of New Dearborn’s literary world. Some of these people just dropped in here for their morning lift.

He knew all too clearly that News to the World was buying him, just to guarantee its demographics. What was a million bucks against endangering its cash cow? Hiram imagined a teeth-clacking comic face in a News to the World executive training spiel: “If a poor Joe or Jill accidentally cops a copy—then, why, that poor kid obviously has the potential to achieve the same income and same buying power as the rest of us. Why not confirm the obvious? Throwing a few hundreds of thousands of dollars at the kid does no harm, does it? It does a world of good to News to the World!”

Yet he was a muckraker, a thrower of stones. He looked at the cup in his hand. Could he hurl it through that window, now that he had taken a drink from it? He had viewed himself as an outsider, all these years. He wrote ranting small-press and micro-press columns, always going against the grain, fulfilling his counter-cultural urges and building up what he thought of as a raw and uppity printed-word personality.

True, he wrote more sedate columns for the Daily: slightly less honest work, for that necessary paycheck.

And accepted that.

He had moved into that very small tower of glass willingly enough.

Could he move into this much taller one? What if he stubbornly maintained his old lifestyle, buying only the kinds of meals and household items he had always bought? Those peering advertising agencies would find out, in due time, that one of these precious readers of News to the World was a low-life. That would be like throwing a stone.

Then he remembered Basilprop’s words: I changed my mind. You’re buying.

He regarded again the cup in his hand. “You’ve already been thrown through me,” he said. “I’m already a Class-A Consumer.”

“What I have in mind for you,” said Basilprop, joining him at the window, “is a series of exposés. There are rotting things in the Glass Valley you’re only beginning to sniff around, in your Daily columns. I know which way to direct you, if you want to get into it heavy. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

He looked at her, startled. A sudden vision came to him of her straining the seams of her dress jacket, arm pulled back to really smash a brick through a window.

He always thought it natural of anyone of the lackey-level minion class to hanker after the sound of breaking glass now and then. But someone like her, in her position? Did she, too, yearn to throw stones?

An even more startling thought came:

Was he the stone?

“Now wait a minute,” he said. “What am I, in this deal? Am I a tool of News to the World, or of you?”

News is just getting out of a tough spot. Me, I’m just an opportunist. I know some things that need to be done, and right now I see a way of doing them.” Her smile looked guarded but genuine. “You decide what you’re going to do.”

Words he had quoted in a recent column came to him, written by an old, obscure poet by name of Matthew Green:

“Fling but a stone, the giant dies.

Laugh and be well.”

For who lives in glass houses, anyway?

Everyone, he decided. Every damned one of us.

And he smiled.

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