Monday, June 25, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Three: Road

“For no falsehood can endure
Touch of celestial temper.”
~John Milton
“We’re lost.” Epiphany concluded. “Where are we?”
Edward shrugged. “Somewhere in Kentucky, I think.”
They hadn’t noticed that his phone’s charger wasn’t fully plugged into the dashboard’s cigarette lighter, and an hour of using the satellite navigation system had left the battery completely drained. Within half any hour, Epiphany’s phone was dead as well, and her charger was in her bag, in the trunk.  The Tablet DID have a navigation program on the desktop, but Edward quipped that he wasn’t looking for the ‘9th circle of Hell,’ and didn’t want to ‘accidentally destroy Ohio when told to take that left turn at Albuquerque.’  But there was no denying it: They were WAY off course. 
But something caught Edward’s attention. “I’ll be damned!”
“Look over there… Next Exit: The Creation Museum.” He laughed as he said it.
“Come on!”
“Hey – they might be able to give us directions, even if they are dumb enough to believe that the Garden of Eden was a physical place.” 
Epiphany appreciated the irony of that joke, coming from someone who had discussed the concept of Eden and the origin of humanity with one of the people who was actually there. “Never go up to a religious person and tell them you’re lost,” she added sardonically.
Edward just smiled as he eased into a parking space. It wasn’t hard to find one: The lot was almost completely empty.  Agents Boreman and Bigsby parked well away from them, closer to the lot’s exit.  He opened the door for Epiphany and the two approached the main entrance, which they found locked and chained. Looking inside, it seemed that most of the exhibits were covered in tarps.
“Huh. No one’s home?” Epiphany asked.
“There was another car in the lot. I’m betting someone’s here somewhere.”
The two made their way around the side of the building to a smaller entrance leading to what looked like an administrative office. They went into the small lobby to find a single person shuffling papers behind the main desk.  She was surprised to see the two, but was helpful with directions to get them back on course for Oklahoma City.  It wasn’t hard, they just had to backtrack a little and take the exit the missed a few hours back.  Once that was concluded, Edward asked about the condition of the museum.
“Oh that,” the woman answered, her tone betraying her regret and sadness. “It was in the news, but lost amongst the numerous tragedies on New Year’s Eve.  Our primary benefactor, Mister Ken Ham, decided… to take his own life…” The woman seemed as though she would break down, the memory still too fresh in her mind. “I’m sorry. He took his own life, and before doing so, roughly half of his fortune vanished and with it pretty much all of the funding to keep the museum going.  His family then took to squabbling over the rest of it, grabbing as much as they could for themselves and leaving nothing for the museum.”
None of this was surprising to Edward: It was by his will that this suicide had been brought about, and that ‘half of his fortune’ was now in Edward’s name.  He was a little bit surprised that this alone was enough to close the place down however.
“Was he bankrolling it himself? It couldn’t self-sustain?” There was no trace of sympathy in Edward’s tone, only an objective curiosity.
The woman sighed. “The Museum had many debts related to its startup and required the endowment to continue operations in the near term.  At the same time, there were several other major contributors that also pulled out, and… took their…” But she couldn’t finish the sentence. Her tears no flowed openly, and she reached for a tissue to blow her nose.
Edward just stared her, offering neither comfort nor sympathy; just a blank stare that made her increasingly uncomfortable.
After composing herself, she admonished Edward’s apparent apathy. “You know, it is usually customary to say that you’re sorry for someone’s loss at times like these!”
“Ken Ham was a friend of yours?” Edward asked her.
“He was a close friend, yes, and he was a good man.” She answered quietly.
Sensing his resolve beginning to falter, Epiphany leaned in close to Edward and whispered in his ear, “Don’t go soft on me, Eddie. Remember why we did this.”
But Edward DID remember. And the thought of hundreds of eager and curious schoolchildren teaming through those doors, and having their natural curiosity satiated with un-scientific, mythology-based information setting them up for a lifetime of indoctrination, in which they would challenge science with religion instead of the other way around greatly fed his demon of wrath, stoking its fire until it burned with the white hot intensity of molten iron.
He fixed a gaze upon the woman that chilled her blood. Leaning in close, and in a tone that betrayed a lifetime of anger and frustration, let her know the full depths of his feelings on the matter.
“I should say, ‘I’m sorry?’” he started, sneering at her. “The only thing ‘I’m sorry’ about is that this temple of lies wasn’t burned to the ground!”
Without giving her a chance to respond Edward turned and started out. Epiphany looked back at the shocked and now somewhat frightened curator and smiled broadly to her as they left.
“OK, thank you, I understand and appreciate your time.”
At her small and presently over-stuffed desk on the third floor of the Executive Building, Gretchen Randle sighed after getting blown off for what seemed like the hundredth time. At Edwards’s request, the Vice-President had put her in charge of putting together a legislative task force to propose and ultimately implement Edward’s healthcare system.  So far she had yet to find a single member of congress who had the slightest interest in talking about health care right now.  And in truth, she had yet to find even a single member of congress, as she had been consistently rebuffed merely by members of their staff.
Once again, she felt as if she was failing.
She barely noticed the well-kept young man as he approached her.
“Hello, I’m looking for Rachel Randle?”
With her anger, embarrassment and frustration all acting to cancel each other out, she simply looked up and said, “Gretchen. Gretchen Randle. That’s me. Can I help you?”
“Well, I’m Bill Spencer, Democrat from Missouri. I’ve been tapped to temporarily fill the seat of the late Representative Ak…”
“Wait a second!”  Gretchen finally looked up. “You’re a member of Congress?!”
The young man laughed.  “Well, yeah, of a sort. I’ve been asked to fill in temporarily until a permanent replacement can be elected. I met the Vice President during my impromptu orientation yesterday, and he mentioned your name, and said you had some interesting health care ideas.  I was told not to make any waves by the party high-ups my family is connected to back home, but… Screw ‘em: If I’m only going to be here for a short while, I’m going to make my brief and practically accidental political career count for something! Why don’t you show me what you’ve got?”
And for the next hour, with his enthusiastic and undivided attention, Gretchen laid out the details of how Edward’s health care system would work.  She demonstrated how it would use the existing insurance networks to manage costs and how market forces would be used to insure enough services were available in any given area. They talked about it would be tax-payer funded, but that most people would see no change in their paychecks, since any increase in taxes would be offset by no longer having any premiums or deductibles and little to no co-payments. She laid out how much of a job-creator it would be once health care costs were decoupled from a company’s head count and converted to a tax, based on their profits, instead.
“So in a tough year, you’re health care costs are basically nothing.” The young politician observed.
“Yeah. And you’d only be paying a lot, when you can afford it.  Last year’s auto-bailout could have been almost completely avoided with a system like this! At the citizen level the healthy subsidize the sick, and it’s only on the Corporate Level do we ask the rich to subsidize the poor.”
“And the rich and poor might even be that same company form year to year. Pay when you’re able to; get help when you’re not.”
“And the marginal cost of labor is lowered significantly.”
“Wow. This is a great idea.  But wait… what stops the insurance companies from just gouging the government?
“That’s the best thing: They’ll be competing with each other to keep costs down, and doing so will only make them MORE money!”
“How?” he asked.
“Babies.” She answered with a smile.
“Remember: By law they’ll have to charge the same amount for every person in their portfolio at all times. And newborns’ health care coverage will be contracted out proportionate to each company’s per person costs.  So if they’re charging $2000 a month, for example, they’ll get that whether it’s for a 60-year old, the number of which they’re covering will always be increasing, or a newborn who…”
“…represents 20-30 of essentially free revenue and no cost!”
Gretchen gave him a ‘pistol shot’ with her hand. “You got it. If anyone tries to gouge us, their competitors will get all the babies, and thus be in a better position with a younger and more profitable caseload.”
“Wow. This is amazing. Who do you have on board so far?”
“Well…” Gretchen started, “there’s this new Representative from Missouri…?”
“Me? That’s it?!”
“Still interested in helping us?” she asked meekly.
Bill Spencer sat silently for a moment considering his position. “You bet. Why not – what do I have to lose?”
“Well… In exchange for your support, this bill’s lobbyist guarantees it will have the votes to pass, assuming it’s not completely watered down with amendments. What’s more, he will fully bankroll the campaigns of anyone who plays an integral part in getting it passed.”
Bill was shocked. “Really?!”
“Oh yeah. If you want to try and stick around? Get this passed. And you won’t have to worry about raising any campaign funds.”
She then spent the next half an hour telling him about his new best friend, Edward Carpenter.
It was well after midnight when Edward, Epiphany and their Government entourage finally arrived at the Oklahoma City Hilton.  All were exhausted, having driven many more hours than they’d planned to that day and despite once again having just a single hotel wall separating their beds, neither Edward nor Epiphany had any energy left for the playful shenanigans with which they had kept the agents up late with on previous nights.
On their way to meeting their next recruit for lunch, they stopped at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  Neither was particularly religious, but they shared a moment of silence in front to the memorial to the victims of the 1995 bombing of the building all the same.  The loss of life that had happened on this spot weighed heavily on both of them.
“This is what’s killing us.” Edward finally broke the silence. “This kind of insanity is why we’re being destroyed.”
“How are we meant to stop this?”
“We can’t prevent every instance of this kind of action, unless we know it’s coming. But we know what it comes FROM. Whether your name is Tim McVeigh, Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, this is the inevitable result when Right-Wing thinking is taken to its logical conclusion. Only death can follow such rank mistrust and intolerance.”
As Epiphany had lobbied so hard for the course of action that had brought them to this point, Edward hardly needed to convince her. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, they returned to their vehicle and proceeded to the restaurant where they would be meeting Paul Wyczyk for lunch.
The contrast between this man and the one they had met in Atlanta could not have been greater.
Paul was already waiting for them, while John had arrived late.
While John’s wore his long, almost unkempt, Paul’s was short and neatly trimmed; every hair seemed to be in place.
John’s casual jeans and T-Shirt attire was replaced by suit-pants and a dress shirt, complete with tie and cuff-links.  Edward was sure there was a matching jacket hanging somewhere – it was also that kind of restaurant, in contrast to the road-side barbecue joint where they had met John.
Paul was also quite a bit older than both John and Edward, five to ten years at least.  And John’s relative skepticism, even suspicion of the two was replaced by Paul’s broad smile and welcoming demeanor.
“Eddie!” Paul called out enthusiastically when they’d reached the table, “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!”
Edward introduced Epiphany and, just as he had done for John in Atlanta, laid out his pitch for Paul to join him in his growing ‘think tank.’  Paul was confused.
“Eddie… I’m an Accountant. I specialize in fraud detection, and work for a small business consulting firm.  What makes you think I’d even be qualified to advice anyone on public policy, let alone interested?”
Edward thought for a moment. “As far as your qualifications, it comes down to this. I’ve read a lot of your on-line writing and you’ve read a lot of mine. We see eye to eye on a lot of things, despite you being a self-professed ‘Conservative Republican.”
“Hey: It’s not my fault they’ve gone off the deep end!” Paul answered with a smile.
Edward smiled back, “And THAT, sir, is your most important and unique qualification: You come at most issues from a Conservative perspective, and yet fully recognize that the Republicans have gone completely insane… and have utterly sold out to the Corporatists and Religious fanatics”
Epiphany snickered, “If you’re not an industry sellout or a Jesus-freak, what’s left for someone to be Conservative about?”
They had a laugh at that, and Paul was ready to answer, but Edward continued before he had the chance. “I want your advice. I’ve already met with the most Liberal man I know, who’s judgment I still trust….”
“Let me guess: Old-School Southpaw?” Paul had read enough of the comments left on each other blogs over the years to know how much Edward had admired John’s ‘Lefty’s Grove.’
Edward smiled. “You got it. His real name is John Rydell. And he’s…  Well, he’s exactly what you might expect.  Seems he’s one of a rare breed that isn’t changed much by the anonymity of the internet.”
“He’s a true-believer, then.”
“Yes he is, but he’s also a very sharp guy. And there’s no one in the world I’d rather have advising me – from the Left anyway. From the Right? Well, you’re about the most Conservative man I know who’s opinion I still think is worth a damn.  It’s that contrasting perspective that we need. It will be a minority voice, to be sure: We’ve got three Liberals and… well, I don’t really know that West is particularly ideological, but anyway… If we’re successful, we’ll have a pretty significant influence on policy moving forward. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to let the Liberals just come in and take over, unrestrained.”
Paul frowned. “But that’s the thing, Ed. You say, ‘If we’re successful,’ and I’ve got to say… honestly… that this sounds like a bunch of dreaming. Just… Delusions of grandeur, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Not at all,” Edward answered. “In fact, I appreciate your frankness.  But here’s why you might be interested anyway:  I’m offering to double your current salary – and I’ve already set aside the money necessary to do that.  Beyond that? Well… If I told you about any of the other ‘perks,’ I’m afraid you’d think I was joking. So I’ll tell you what: Why don’t you come down to D.C.  My people will take care of all of the travel expenses.  Once we’re there, I’ll take you to the White House and show you some stuff that the Government doesn’t want anyone to see.  Once you see that? You might be ready to hear the rest of my pitch.”
“What are you going to show me?”
“I’m going to show you what happened to everyone who died on New Year’s Eve.”
Paul dropped his fork. “I thought they all committed suicide.”
“And you buy that?”
“OKaaaay… It is hard to believe, but that’s what was reported.”
“Well, they did actually take all of their own lives, but there were some strange circumstances surrounding it, as you might imagine.” Edward shot him a sly look, “Did you know that every single one of them left a video behind?”
Paul was clearly stunned. “No. No I…”
“Of course not,” Edward interrupted. “Because they’ve all been classified, and none have yet been released to the press. They also wrote a manifesto. All of them. Together. Would you be interested in knowing what it said?”
“Yes, you bet I would!”
“Well then: Come to D.C.  You’ll leave with more questions than you arrived with, I’m sure, but at a minimum, you’ll have a better understanding of where I’m coming from.”
As they finished up, Paul agreed to meet them in D.C.  Edward assured him that Gretchen would be calling him with the information but senses some lingering doubts. “On yeah… one more thing… Just in case you still think I’m full of it, do you those two men over there?” Edward nodded towards Agents Boreman and Bigsby who, once again, had agreed to sit a few tables away. “They’ll be leaving when we do. They’re our secret service detail.”
Paul raised an eyebrow, clearly not buying it.
“Check it out: They’ll still barely half-way through their lunch, yet when we leave, they’ll be right behind us. Look for their badges as the walk by.  See you in Washington?”
“I look forward to it,” Paul answered.  To his surprise, it was exactly as Edward had predicted: The two men hastily settled their tab, and left half their lunch on the table in their apparent hurry to keep up with Edward and Epiphany.
Outside, they apologized to the agents for rushing them.
“Sorry about that, guys. We’ll stop early for dinner. It’s a long drive from here to Berkley!"

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