by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2002, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.

11: Gumbo Variations


Tinker was out walking the parking lot of the Atlanta airport, having successfully brought five big Jamaican spliffs through customs without incident. What balls! He thought to himself. He couldn't wait to show Charlie. But as he started hitting on the first spliff, he started thinking about his wife, his children, and running over and over in his mind whether he should call them. This indecision was excruciatingly painful, giving him a smarting headache. Finally he put the spliff out and went to use a pay phone.

After the tenth unanswered ring, he realized that she would have split, taken the kids back to her mother's in San Diego just like he told her to do, leaving the house and its overdue rent... Her mother always told her, in one of those standard motherly lectures about leaving the unfaithful husband, that the financial support would be there for her and the kids if she walked out. So... they were gone. Everything had just stopped.

If you tend to live in the moment,

The moment is right now.

-- Charlatans, "Time to Get Straight" (Darrell De Vore)

Remorse choked Tinker's throat. Tears threatened to flood his eyes, his face strained to keep from cracking. What if she had found out, somehow, through some psychic power or perverse version of Murphy's Law, about his stupid tryst in Jamaica? This romantic adventure had turned painfully real. He'd reached a point of no return. Contrary to what he thought before, this sudden freedom did not feel so liberating.

When he returned to the terminal and saw Charlie sitting at the gate, head in his hands, Tinker snapped out of his funk. He came running up, wild-eyed and bursting with questions. Charlie wearily shut him up, and started looking around nervously. "There's a lot you don't know," he hissed at him in a low voice, scaring Tinker. "And it's gonna stay that way until we are outta here." Charlie gave him that goddamn-it look. He was always impatient with Tinker, wanting him to be more instinctive, more aware of his surroundings.

Within the hour they were speeding out of Atlanta in a rented Toyota Corolla, and at least two government cars were following them.

* * *

A day later Charlie and Tinker drove along Highway 61, parallel with the big muddy Mississippi River, down through the Delta, a vast floodplain from Memphis to New Orleans, the home of the most original music ever to come from America. Charlie could almost hear the harmonica moan of an old black sharecropper, the singing of the roustabouts as they loaded bales of cotton onto the paddlewheel boats, the guitar-pickin' levee workers. As he drove through the Delta, he couldn't really see the river, because the monstrous levee blocked the view. The levee rose gradually from his side, some 40 feet high and 400 feet wide, with towns and cities spreading right up its slope.

Charlie's ancestors had helped build it. The levee is truly immense, higher and longer than the Great Wall of China, holding in the giant Mississippi floods from Cairo, IL, all the way down past New Orleans. It was first erected by poor whites, mostly Irish immigrants, including three of Charlie's ancestors migrating west from Philadelphia. The levees made the land extremely valuable, enriching the white families and providing instant fortunes for the next generation. The plantations established in the rich delta region were worked by black sharecroppers who'd inherited the skills for agriculture and the strength and talent for group singing from their African ancestors. Over time, as the levees needed to be built higher, contractors hired mules to haul materials along the river, and discovered the hard way that white folk just can't handle mules the way black muleskinners can. The newly "freed" blacks were put to work, often at gunpoint and for little or no pay, and often after a beating they would never forget, from the white foreman, the "Mister Cholly" of so many old songs, and indeed one of the O'Brien's had been named Charles.

The black muleskinners would go on to invent the first country blues songs, set to an African-based beat, and with an African-related melody so harmonious to animals that it would stimulate the mules to continue working. The white foremen couldn't figure out how it worked, and could never duplicate the blues well enough to move the animals. The black muleskinners knew how to use the blues as a form of encryption, and the encrypted messages were how to obtain freedom. How to bust the locks, and when to drop everything and rush Mister Cholly and grab his rifle. The information they needed to escape.

Charlie was going to use a song for encryption. He needed to encrypt and spread across the Net the server infrastructure with the new version of ICE, which he'd taken from Jamaica. He needed to be able to retrieve it in time of need, and keep it safe until then. He needed to embed the code in songs that could be unlocked by password, and spread the songs around the Net.

Charlie had no doubt they were being followed. The FBI was his first choice, for the obvious reason of association with Moaning. But Grogran's people might not be far behind. According to Moaning, Grogan had been monitoring the situation in Jamaica, perhaps even physically, though Charlie had never seen this mystery person. And then there were those other mystery people in the van that time, back in the Bay Area… No matter. Whoever wanted the infrastructure on the DAT cartridge burning a hole in his pocket wanted it so badly that they were willing to circumvent international law.

I got to keep movin',

Blues fallin' down like hail.

-- Robert Johnson, "Hellhound on my Trail"

Charlie explained to Tinker that New Orleans was the best place to go at that moment. A friend of Nanker Phelge's, the famous producer Chester "Don't Wanna Discuss It" Blunt, was a minor connected person there, and owned a studio that once recorded Professor Longhair himself. "We need to convert some old tapes into digital form. We can use this music to hide the new ICE infrastructure and source code," he explained to Tinker, patting the DAT in his shirt pocket.

The annual Special Graphics and Animation (SGA) convention was going on there as well -- lots of high-resolution computer graphics nerds and video special effects wonks. Blunt could get them into SGA, where they could disappear into the dark halls of the virtual reality exhibits and find Gretchen and Gooky, the two MLFers that were still on Charlie's side… as far as he knew.

Approaching New Orleans from the north was like diving down into the lap of Venus, sinking into a humid animal passion. The city and its suburbs form a giant tongue, surrounded by dark bodies of water and velvety bayous that form the mouth of the Mississippi. Floodwaters of the massive northern continent carry sediment from Wisconsin on down through the soft plains of the Midwest to the rich, fertile Delta region. The river's waters leave behind mud like the train of a long bridal gown.

You know your mama, she was a stone gumbo cooker,

And you know your old man, he was an alligator hooker,

Where ya at mule?

-- Dr. John, "Where Ya At Mule" (Mac Rebennack)

The course of the mighty Mississippi changes every year, the people of New Orleans readjust their seats, and the forces of industry remake the levees. Chet Blunt's father, in his time, was the single most important link in the security force monitoring the river. His job was to open the floodgates to send the bulk of the rampaging Mississippi down across the mudflats on the far side of the bayou. Of course, this was rarely done, since it wreaked havoc with the few landowners on the far side, mostly blacks; but it would preserve the thriving tongue of land that was New Orleans, sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico tasting the salty brine, and bearing a lascivious Zydeco grin.

On the outskirts, in Metairie, Charlie pulled over to pick up a female hitchhiker, thinking it would be a good move to look like a couple of students or something. Tinker awoke from his stupor but not in time to complain; besides, once he saw her, his juices started flowing. She got into the car and Charlie pulled away quickly. Off he roared down a shaded street of split-level early Sixties houses with quaint front lawns and little porches shrouded in shrubbery, havens for the largest cockroaches ever seen north of Florida.

Twentysomething, wearing a bandana and Deadhead tie-dye shirt with a sexy impish smile and shiny black hair, she said her name was Bobbi -- "Like that girl in that song Bob Weir sang about." Meaning of course "Me and Bobby McGee" by Kristoferson, a hit for Janis Joplin, that Weir and the Dead covered. She was headed to Tipitina's bistro, on Tchoupitoulas Street, to see the Alligators. Tinker was distracted by this hippie chick, which annoyed Charlie. A bit later, after a short bit on a freeway and a ride through mysterious neighborhoods, they parked near the levee, around the corner from Tipitina's. Tinker and the girl walked into Tipitina's arm-in-arm, already sweetened by Jamaica's finest, and settled onto barstools near the heart of the dance floor, sipping bourbon. A side door offered the outside night air and a pay phone under the Dixie beer sign.

"Yo Chet," breathed Charlie into the phone's mouthpiece, exhaling cigarette smoke, and as soon as he established his identity, Chet told him to wait right there, he'd be down in about half an hour. Looking forward to it. Charlie hung up the phone, dropped and stepped on his cigarette, and then lit the roach he'd shared with Bobbi and Tinker, sucked on it a bit, and passed it to a biker standing by the door before going back in.

Just a working class bar from the decor, but Charlie recognized the band stage as a landmark, the place that Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers called home. The Alligators were paying a tribute to Longhair, belting out blues with a Professorial bent, superimposing fast triplets on a syncopated 8/8 rumba beat.

Just because I love you

Cross my heart I do,

If you don't wanna believe me,

what more can I do?

-- Professor Longhair, "Hey Now Baby" (Henry Roeland Byrd)

Everyone was dancing the Second Line, a stomp with your right (or left) arm raised like you're poking the sky with an umbrella, punctuating the space between beats. Then you walk down that road, hit that bridge, jump with your fancy footwork, and get back in rhythm just in time to punctuate the space between beats. Then repeat.

Folks were rubbing up against each other, one couple doing a gator on the floor (gettin' down in one step and bouncing around on their stomachs, then up again in one step), all in rumba-rock time. The place was mobbed now, a bunch of SGA attendees had shown up -- Charlie could tell they were from SGA, some still wearing funny badges with multiple ribbons attached consecutively down to their navels, signifying different interests; some carrying bags emblazoned with corporate logos; some just looking like they stepped out bleary-eyed from behind a computer to hear some boogie, perhaps dance a little. As Charlie sipped his bourbon, Bobbi eyed him, looking like she was waiting for something to happen, and then she focused back on Tinker. He couldn't explain his paranoia or stop Tinker from falling into what he thought was a trap. He didn't trust Bobbi. She was almost too hippie to be true.

He sipped more of his bourbon, and the room intensity switch was suddenly cranked up past 11. Everything was altogether too vivid. He began to think… Then he was sure. His drink must have been laced with something. Was it LSD? It came on like acid. He could feel the familiar rush, that old feeling of the universe crashing inward; the very idea of self, dissolving in a pool of quivering energy. No, it was something else, something acid-like, but incapacitating; instead, it propelled him to speak, the information flow coming right out of his mouth like a locomotive, no stopping it. And Bobbi was still looking at him, now smiling at him.

"Do you want to tell me anything?" she asked, in total command, for this was a new kind of truth serum left over from the CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments in the late 1950s.

"Yes," he said and swallowed hard, not sure how it sounded. She seemed pleased. He was not. He was already paranoid; this would intensify things exponentially. For starters, who was she really? He couldn't even ask. He looked around, not actually seeking escape, just seeking something he could trust.

"You OK?" She wouldn't let it go.

"No, I'm not fine at all," he said neatly, regretting it, because he had meant to lie, but couldn't. He suddenly understood; this drug disarmed you like an acid trip, and like an acid trip you would convince yourself to go with the flow, but that only caused you to babble on like a fool. She had her hand on his arm. He smiled at her, but fought furiously to keep his mouth shut. On the next stool, Tinker leaned over and smiled at both of them, rather approvingly. "I really love my wife," Tinker announced, grinning like an idiot.

Charlie's mind was in full resplendent irony when the Blunt man appeared, fat and sweaty in a leather jacket and madras shirt, fancy jeans, Texas boots, gold chain around his neck. To Charlie he was the urban cowboy from hell, until he recognized him. It took Charlie a while to connect, but Chet Blunt was already talking about one of the guitar players in the band.

"Just saw him the other day, playing on the train platform, no shit. These guys have it tough."

Charlie could only nod, and Tinker could only smile. The girl, Bobbi, held onto Charlie's arm and stared blankly at Chet.

"So what's the shit?" Chet asked Charlie.

"We were followed to New Orleans," Charlie said in a long drawl, obviously inebriated, but nevertheless telling the truth. "She's some kind of government agent or spy."

Chet averted his eyes to look at the girl, and at Tinker. Then back at him.

"Tink' and I just got back from Jamaica," said Charlie, as if by explanation. This was going nowhere; Charlie realized that explaining this shit to Chet at that moment was just about impossible. But he tried. "I got this software," he said, then paused, then continued, "I think the funk's after it."

This got Chet's attention, "the funk" being code for the authorities.

"So you're in a bit of trouble," Chet said in a mellifluous Louisiana drawl. "Well, you're in the right place. This town is wired. Shit, this town could cover up the assassination of a president, it can deal with anything." Then he peered into Charlie's face. "Everything's gonna be OK as long as it doesn't get funky," he said, shouldering an imaginary gun in an imaginery holster. "That's what I'm here for. I'm here to eradicate the funkiness."

To Charlie, Chet's smiling face was a synthetic mask pockmarked with large pores, the pores growing wider... Charlie shook his head, looked back again, and Chet seemed perfectly normal. Charlie searched for his shot glass of bourbon. "We need to get Nanker's tapes together."

"Yeah, I got 'em. So, you -- the three of you -- need a place to stay?" Chet asked hesitatingly, sipping his brew. His manner suggested that perhaps Charlie and Tinker should dump the girl and come with him.

But the girl answered first. "I can cook," Bobbi said plaintively, with the hint of a southern belle, "I'll cook y'all a nice breakfast tomorrow morning!" She positioned herself on a stool between Tinker and Charlie.

Two drunken sailors chose that moment to stumble by, one bumping Chet from behind, and the other practically falling into Bobbi's lap, laughing and giggling. She laughed along with them, and helped the sailor to his feet. Charlie chose that moment to flee. He dashed toward the side exit, upsetting at least one person's drink in the process. Chet followed him out, with Tinker staggering behind, and they met up on the sidewalk under the Dixie beer sign.

"Hey man..." Chet grabbed Charlie's arm.

"Sorry..." Charlie stopped, turned and gave him a look of pure agony. "Just had to get outta there." Chet looked at Charlie uncomprehendingly, so Charlie tried to explain. "We've been dosed, man. That chick did it. Some kind of truth serum, I think." The horror on his face melted, and he relaxed.

Chet looked puzzled but then it dawned on him that his friend Charlie was on acid or something, perhaps not willingly. Charlie had relaxed very quickly and was now beaming back at him like an idiot who'd just discovered the meaning of life in a parking lot.

"Yeah, no problem," said Chet with a knowing smirk, and he put his arm around Tinker. "I can see it in his shit-eating grin," he laughed, nudging Tinker, who started to giggle and couldn't stop. There was a commotion at the door, and Bobbi leaned out with the two sailors, looking for them. They quickly ducked back into the darkness of the levee, among some cypress trees. "Let's go back to my place. It's not far," whispered Chet. "It's right on the riverbank."

They cruised down the levee, Tinker stopping every once in a while to gaze in wonder at the miraculous Mississippi River, Charlie grabbing his arm and moving him along, hiccupping bourbon, stumbling into lampposts and signs, trying to keep up. They reached a point where Chet stopped to point out the view. They were standing in the billowing moist wind coming off the river, cooling the layer of sweat underneath their clothes. Chet pulled out a pint of Stolichnaya vodka from his back pocket. These folks in New Orleans sure know how to drink, thought Tinker. Pure alcohol, sliding down his throat, cleansing his need and quenching his thirst, and starting the fire.

You know I'd rather be sloppy drunk,

Than anything I know.

-- Sonny Boy Williamson, "Sloppy Drunk Blues"

The fetid air was 101 proof, heavy to breathe. They trudged onward to Chet's studio off Tchoupitoulas through the back door that faced the muddy levee and the Mississippi. They walked through small, acoustic-paneled rooms loaded with equipment where some of the greatest New Orleans musicians had played, including Professor Longhair, Dr. John the Night Tripper, and even Louis Armstrong right before he died. They passed gold records and rare promotional posters, stepped over microphone cords, and walked up the back stairs, and all the while, Charlie could see ghosts of the musicians sitting around the mixing consoles, smoking butts and drinking beer, while others were setting up or tearing down.

Chet threaded the tapes and manned the controls. Tinker loaded the software from Charlie's cartridge into Chet's massive digitial recording computer. Charlie used the steganographic editor to embed the entire ICE server and client package into music files. They chose a variety of songs, from recent live Stones concerts to a Robert Johnson tune covered by the Alligators, and even an original tune written by Tinker and recorded once by the Graceful Duck, called "Escape Key".

And when you talk about the Fall

Will you refer to it all

As just a pop in the night?

Or just a moment of fright?

"Blues in the key of E," said Charlie, smirking. "E for Escape. My god, Tinker, I think we have a hit here!" Sure enough, the truth serum was still working.

* * *

Tinker, not knowing he'd been dosed with truth serum, had no explanation for his exhiliration, which had lasted most of the night but left him tired and spent. Was this simply how his new life would feel, always bubbling over with the need to tell the truth? And if he was having such a great time, why wasn't Charlie? Charlie had always led the way on voyages. He had always been the Rock of Gibraltar, but now he seemed to Tinker more than usually paranoid, more disengaged from his surroundings, or unable or unwilling to communicate.

As the truth serum took leave of Tinker's brain, he stared at what he thought was a mandala on the ceiling, and fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of a voodoo computer invested with Crowleyian magick that had the power to reroute any message packet to anywhere, wreaking havoc throughout the world... And so it went until morning (or perhaps the dream, as they say, occurred in the flash of a few seconds before waking). When he awoke and looked right back up at that ceiling, the mandala was gone. In its place was a ceiling of rippled plaster, vaguely circular and concentric.

Chet was already awake, cooking breakfast. "Hey, get yer ass out here." Some kind of Cajun gumbo filled the kitchen with its overpowering smell. When Charlie walked in, he saw his place at the table marked with a press badge for the SGA conference. There was one for Tinker, too, who was just about inhaling his breakfast.

"Yo, my man," Charlie said to Chet in a hoarse, nicotine-stained voice, "press, no less."

"Press badges for tradeshows are easy. FBI surveillance -- now that's hard."

Charlie turned to Tinker. "We've got some talking to do," he barked. "We got to split up --"

A blast suddenly ripped through the adjoining studio, instantly filling it with plaster dust. The explosion collapsed the studio building and rocked the neighborhood.

Everyone in the kitchen was pushed to the floor, and the kitchen table collapsed. Dust was everywhere. The rumblings echoed in the street as Charlie and Tinker shoved aside debris to get to the door, which was no longer there. Chet was crying. His entire studio had suddenly blown up.

As soon as Charlie realized this, he grabbed Tinker. "No time!" he shouted hoarsely, but he could barely hear himself. Tinker somehow understood. They ran blindly up the alley, clanging into garbage cans.

They ran out into the street, smack into the Endymion parade, a rehearsal for Mardi Gras. Neighborhood culture barons were dressed up in Big Chief feather addresses and painstakingly sewed sequined blouses, throwing out hand-carved coconuts representing mildly Haitian hoodoo magic. In the peach blossom sunshine Tinker thought he was seeing aliens -- multicolored creatures peeling off various textures of skin, wrinkled like prunes, sweating in the heat, then a layer of smooth jello-like skin, then fish scales, then lizard hides, then jellyfish-like atrophied flesh... vivid colors seemed to sweep right through him. Reality finally came to a rest with a stable view of the costumed parade members and partygoers. He walked up to one of the creatures and asked, "What's happening?"

"Car exploded!" the Spy Boy cried, pointing back over to where they'd been. "Took down the whole building!"

Charlie was tugging at his sleeve. "We have to get out of here." He seemed remarkably calm for someone who just witnessed an explosion. "Let's grab a cab and go to that graphics show." He was holding the SGA press passes and the data cartridges from the studio with the encrypted songs.

* * *

A half-hour later Tinker and Charlie stepped out of the cab and into a throng of casually dressed nerds, some wearing blinking jewelry, and more than a few wearing propeller caps. In the surreal atmosphere of a virtual reality exhibit, surrounded by people with curious hairstyles and clothing, they crossed over into a calm numb zone, staring blankly at wildly animated exhibits, breathing almost pure oxygen in the semi-darkness. Waves of nausea were dispelled as the negatively charged air calmed their stomachs and the darkness enveloped them in safety.

SGA was the only show in which the nerds of the military industrial complex mingled with the technoids of the movie industry. What they had in common, besides a keen interest in high-end graphics technology, was a love for extreme experiences, and the contrasts of darkness and light. The virtual reality room, called "Tomorrow's Realities," provided some comic relief.

They walked without talking. Each booth they passed was decked out, floor to ceiling, with high technology gear, giant video screens, lots of pony-tailed guys in dark olive suits handing out brochures to the sound of screeching guitars. They were going down the new media entertainment aisle. Charlie, his mind still singed by the truth serum, could only see each booth as a carnival sideshow, a state-of-the-art digital video editing system as just another bearded lady.

Tinker saw her first as they walked up to the booth. "Hey man, how're ya doin?" Gretchen Grubstein was full of joy. "You got the party list? There's a party in the French Quarter tonight..." With her was her eternal sidekick Gooky Karma, smiling and nodding. They all hugged each other and went into the MLF booth, which had an inner sanctum. They hunkered around the stacks of literature and Gooky started rolling a joint.

"This is so cool," said Gretchen, nodding at Gooky. "We get to sneak in here, in the middle of all this madness. The FBI had Gooky here in for questioning, and we found out that they don't know much at all."

"Yeah!" smiled Gooky. "We skipped town as soon as we could."

The conversations were heavy, dense with destiny. The Media Liberation Front people were in the final stages of planning two major events that would establish the OtherNet. "Moaning said he needed this guy, Grogan, to secure other control points," said Gretchen. "As far as I know, it all goes down in Vegas. Our contact inside Aggregate has access to the backbone during a presentation at the tradeshow, for just a few moments. That's when the insertion occurs. Grogan, apparently, is hooked up to this event. That's all I know right now."

"Well, I'm making plans of my own," said Charlie. "I'll make sure to cut you in." Charlie explained his situation. He had the data cartridge from Chet's studio. They needed to distribute the encrypted songs throughout the Net for safekeeping and later retrieval. Peer-to-peer networking would do the trick. Then they would split up. Charlie would handle the details of getting foreign bank accounts. Tinker would make his way back to San Francisco and lay low for two weeks. Gretchen and Gooky would continue with the MLF operation and not tell Moaning anything.

"The ICE-enabled infrastructure, right?" Gretchen was beaming, pointing at Charlie's data cartridge. "We all want copies. Let's really spread it around so that no one can stop it."

"Everybody gets it. It's free. The more copies we make, the less important we are to the FBI."

Gretchen smiled at him. "So let me take it from here."



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