Narabedla Ltd, p.1
By Frederik Pohl
Published by Ballantine Books:
THE HEECHEE SAGA
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
The Annals of the Heechee
BLACK STAR RISING
THE COOL WAR
THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS
The Age of the Pussyfoot
With Jack Williamson
WALL AROUND A STAR
THE FARTHEST STAR
PREFERRED RISK (with Lester del Rey)
THE BEST OF FREDERIK POHL
(edited by Lester del Rey)
THE BEST OF C. M. KORNBLUTH
(edited by Frederik Pohl)
A Del Rey Book
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
A Del Rey Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1988 by Frederik Pohl
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 87-47810
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Hardcover Edition: April 1988 First Mass Market Edition: April 1989
Cover Art by Barclay Shaw
When Woody Calderon told me about the offer he couldn’t refuse, but was going to anyway, he blew my mind. He had done that often enough before. I expected a certain amount of weirdness from Woody. It came with the turf, because he was a musician, after all.
I hadn’t expected this particular variety.
Woody was a cellist. I was an accountant—for, among other artists, him. Woody paid me a retainer plus my hourly charges to handle his money, except that he rarely had any, and to keep him out of trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, which I sometimes couldn’t. I wasn’t getting rich on Woody’s account, because his career wasn’t making him rich, either. It had started off, like, wow, with a wonderful first-year string of successes, when he won the Tchaikovsky prize, and debuted at Carnegie Hall, and had the critics comparing him to Casals and Rostropovich. But then he hadn’t had a second year. At first he was a prodigious wunder-kind—the kind that makes thirty-year-old cellists weep. Then, all of a sudden, the critics began to open their reviews with, “While not up to the brilliance of intonation and impeccable musicianship of his debut, Woody Calderon’s new recital is nevertheless …” Nevertheless disappointing, is what they were saying, and Carnegie Hall lost his telephone number.
Nevertheless, and this time I am talking a happier kind of nevertheless, he really was the kind of cellist you could fairly compare with anybody you liked, even if he wasn’t getting either the bookings or the reviews anymore. I kept him on as a client partly because I was certain that sooner or later he would make it again, and partly out of sympathy.
The sympathy was a personal thing. It happened that I, too, had had a brilliant first year. I was a baritone. I sang in all the glorious places: La Scala, Covent Garden, the Met—
I did them all. Oh, I only had little roles, to be sure—somebody’s father or somebody’s jailer—but it was only a matter of time until I’d be doing Papageno or Tonio. Everybody said so. At that time I even said so myself, to the girls I was having so wonderful a time dating. And we all might have been right, too, if it hadn’t been for the damn wardrobe mistress’s damn kid that gave me the damn mumps in Chicago. I didn’t get sick enough to die, just sick enough to wish for it. When I was well enough to sing again I couldn’t.
I do not wish to tell you what it felt like when the doctors began talking about how sometimes, even with the best of care, mumps had consequences—well, not the disease itself, so much, as the side effects of some of the treatments—well, in layman’s terms, Mr. Stennis …
They weren’t very good at layman’s terms. They were better at medical terms like “Guillaume-Barr6 syndrome” and “tracheal stenosis” and “I hope you understand, Mr. Stennis, that there is no possible question here of anything like malpractice.”
Well, there wasn’t. I made sure of that. I checked it out. But the trachea and the larynx had got involved. The warm, strong baritone voice had been turned off.
And, unfortunately, not just the voice.
It was not a good time for me, those days right after I came off the critical list.
I did have a safety net. My mother, bless her prudent, departed soul, had laid down the law while I was still in college. If, against all her sound motherly advice, I were going to go in for something as madly chancy as a singing career, I had to take the precaution of studying something employable as well. So I’d taken a full load of accountancy courses, done well in them, had all the credentials I needed to put them to use.
So, instead of being a star, I began preparing the tax returns of stars … and of a lot of non-stars I didn’t have the heart to turn away, like Woody Calderon.
Woody came in for his appointment with me an hour late, and eight hundred dollars short. I was working out with the weights beside my open window, and he nodded approvingly. “Keeping in shape, huh? Good, good. But listen, you’re going to have to stall them for me again, Nolly,” he said. “I haven’t got the money.”
Since the I.R.S. had been threatening to attach his assets for the money, that didn’t sound like good news to me. “I can’t. They mean it this time. Next step is they file on you.”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding vaguely. .Woody’s name isn’t Woody, it’s Bruce. But he doesn’t look like a Brace. What he looks like more than anything else is Woody Allen—unsure, unfocused, and all. “I was kind of afraid you might say that. Well, gee. I dunno, Nolly. Maybe I should take the offer from Henry Davidson-Jones.”
That was when I sat up straight. “You didn’t tell me about any offer from Henry Davidson-Jones,” I said.
“Well, it just came up.”
I waited. Henry Davidson-Jones was a name that mattered. For one thing, he was about as big a benefactor of the arts as the world possessed. He was C.E.O. of a huge financial thing called Narabedla Ltd., but where he found time to run the business I could not guess. He was always doing six things at once, and they always turned out to be raising money for chamber-music groups and sponsoring ballet companies and generally doing all the things angels are supposed to do, except that as far as I knew he wasn’t sleeping with any members of the corps de ballet.
Woody was looking tickled and apologetic, both. I waited him out. “Matter of fact,” he said, “I just came from his office. I got a call from his secretary. I thought, I don’t know, I thought maybe he was going to offer me a shot in some quartet or something.” His voice was rising. Woody stands about five feet tall, tops, even with lifts in his shoes, and when he gets excited he chirps like a bird. “Only it wasn’t that. He started out telling me how unfair the critics and the managers were, and how he really thought I deserved a break—well, I sure agreed with him about that. And, I mean, Nolly, he knew,” Woody piped earnestly. “He’s heard me. Probably even bought his own tickets, because I sure never knew he was ever in the audience. He told me how fine I was at those impossible chords and, you know, like in those Paganini runs where you’re lucky if you just get all the notes in, and he said my intonation was flawless—”
“He offered me a job!” Woody yelped.
“And you’re thinking twice about whether to take it, for God’s sake? With the I.R.S. breathing down your neck?” He said apologetically, “Yeah, but it’s kind of weird, Nolly. See, he started out by asking me all kinds of personal things—no, I’m a liar, he didn’t ask anything at all. He was telling me all this stuff about myself. Like how Yvonne and I broke up last year and there hasn’t really been anybody else since. Like how my family isn’t really very close. All I have is a couple of cousins, really; and I’ve been chasing around so much trying to get a break that I’ve practically lost touch with all my friends—well, I don’t mean you, Nolly; I mean—”
“I know what you mean, Woody! Get to it! This is beginning to get really bizarre.”
He looked at me worriedly through his Woody Allen glasses. He couldn’t help seeing that I was suddenly very tense. In fact, I could see my hand shaking, and so could he.
“Davidson-Jones said there was a little, well, like a syndicate, sort of, a bunch of people who had kind of a private concert circuit.”
“And he offered you a contract to play for them.”
“Right, Nolly! Long-term. Years, anyway. And they’d pay me a hundred and a half a year, plus traveling expenses, and because they were all foreigners the whole net would go into a Swiss bank, no taxes, and—”
I held up my hand. It had stopped shaking because I wasn’t in any doubt any longer. I finished for him. “And he said the only drawback was that you’d be completely out of circulation while you traveled, and couldn’t hope to keep in contact with the people you knew.”
Woody gave me a long, worried stare. “You heard about this? He said they were Brazilian millionaires.”
“I heard,” I said. “A long time ago. Before I lost my voice. Henry Davidson-Jones made me the same offer, only then they were Arab oil sheiks.”
We sat and stared at each other for a minute. Then Woody said, “You didn’t take it? Why not?”
“I didn’t get the chance. I had a date at the Chicago Lyric Opera two days later, and then I got the mumps.”
We had another session of staring at each other. Then Woody said, “Listen, Nolly, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t help. What I want to know is, do you think I should do it?”
I couldn’t answer right away, because there were too many answers floating around in my head. They didn’t agree. The first answer that suggested itself to me was that it surely was a way to keep the Feds from attaching his cello. It was no Stradivarius, but it was a good $6,500 contemporary instrument that he would pay hell trying to replace if he lost it to the I.R.S. The second answer that came to mind was that he certainly hadn’t had any better offers lately. The third, however, was positively no.
But I didn’t have to say any of them, because Woody’s head was moving in the same directions as my own. He straightened up, all five feet of him, and said sorrowfully, “It’s true that that could square me with the Internal Revenue, and it’s a long way the best offer I’ve had. But honest, Nolly, I don’t like the sound of it.”
All I could do was agree.
So we talked for a while about whether I could hope to keep the government from foreclosing on his fiddle for a while, and how he might be able to get some fill-in work with a New Jersey orchestra to eat on, and by and by he went away, looking dejected.
And three days later I got a letter containing a cashier’s draft for a thousand dollars, issued on a Pittsburgh bank and mailed from Baltimore, with a note that said:
Pay the bastards off for me, Nolly, and credit the rest to what I owe you. I’ll let you know how the tour goes after a while.
Of course, there was only one tour he could have been talking about. So he had my curiosity turned up high, but it all sounded fine enough.
What wasn’t so fine was that the next day there was a little story in the Times arts section that said Woody Calderon had been in a light plane that crashed twenty miles off the South Carolina coast, no bodies or survivors found, everyone on board presumed dead.
The first few days of June aren’t the ulcer season for accountants—that’s early April, just before filing date—but June comes close. Early June is when I have to lash the clients with the sixty-day deferments into getting it all together for June 15th. My clients being what they are—because it is quite true that concert musicians do not well comprehend the real world—means that I have enough on my plate at that time to keep my mind occupied.
I did think about Woody as time permitted. I even mourned him. Not so much as a friend, of course, because he’d been right in saying that we weren’t very close. But he was, by God, a cellist I loved to listen to, and he was missed. He wasn’t just missed by me, either. Even the critics who had done him in were now regretting his loss, though I didn’t notice any of them apologizing for shafting him while he was still around.
After half a dozen twelve-hour days I had the last of the sluggards’ W-2 forms and airline ticket stubs entered into the computer, and their checks to the state and the Feds and everybody else made out and clipped to their returns so that all they had to do was sign and mail.
Then I closed my door and got on my exercise bike. It’s a good thing to do while I’m making phone calls, and, after I thought for a while, I dialed my oldest, and homeliest, friend, Wiktor Ordukowsky. “This is Nolly Stennis of the accounting firm of L. Knollwood Stennis and Associates, Mr. Ordukowsky,” I said. “Isn’t it about time you let me proposition you again so we can have a nice, tax-deductible lunch?” He was agreeable, and we settled on the Four Seasons.
Vic Ordukowsky is not only an old buddy from both high school and Columbia University, he also thinks he saved my life. Maybe in a way he did, after the mumps did me in, and anyway ever since then he has felt obliged to keep it saved. In school we saved each other’s lives in class as a matter of routine. We had partnered each other in those desperate semesters on tax law and estate management. We made up weird and wonderful financial transactions to set each other, then helped reduce them to orderly columns of figures for the professors to check over. We coached each other for examinations, and took notes for each other when we cut classes—Vic more for me than I for him, because I also had those everyday sessions with my vocal coach to add to my burden. It worked, though. We both graduated up near the top of the class, and the job offers came in.
Of course, I turned them all down. I was going to be a singer.
What made me think of Vic Ordukowsky was that the job offer he had accepted had come from Narabedla Ltd.
When I got there Vic was at the bar, chatting with a Caribbean-tanned old man with “corporation lawyer” written all over him, and a woman I easily recognized to be one of the mayor’s chief administrative assistants, and, although the Four Seasons is used to having plenty of high-powered people there, half the bar was rubbernecking at them. Mostly at Vic. He had on a dove-gray open-throated shirt and a dove-gray raw silk jacket over it; he smelled of good cigars and expensive barbers, and he was, as I have said, the homeliest man I know. (Of course, that was before Narabedla, so I hadn’t yet found out what homeliness was like.) Vic’s looks never stopped him. He looked like Mr. Potato-Head in high school, too, fat face and eyes a quarter-inch apart, but the girls never let him alone.
“Let’s go inside,” said Vic, terminating his conversation, and I followed. Accountancy Rule No. 1: Never drink at the bar before lunch; the expense account looks better when everything is on the mead check. They seated us immediately, although the big room was full, and they put us right next to the pool. Vic ordered one of those filthy European things that taste like burned bicycle tire steeped in cough syrup; I had a glass of white wine; and we did the necessary.
“I have asked you to lunch,
Vic returned my serve neatly. “I’m really sorry, Nolly,” he said, “but it’s the policy of Narabedla Limited to perform all its accountancy functions with in-house staff. Since we’re privately owned we are excused from a lot of filing—and so we have the option of keeping many of our financial affairs quite confidential. However,” he added, getting carried away with the spirit of the game, “if at any future time these policies should change I will certainly see that your firm is considered.”
He beamed at me. I beamed back at him. The letter of the law was satisfied; we had had a business discussion, and 80 percent of the cost of the luncheon had therefore become deductible as a business expense. “So how have you been?” he finished, as the drinks came.
I said, “Fine, fine, Vic. You’re looking good yourself. Lost a little weight?”
“I wish,” he said glumly. Vic had been chubby even in high school, but when he started earning big bucks he really let himself go. He had to be three hundred pounds. Where he found those good-looking suits that actually seemed to fit him I couldn’t guess. He gave me a rueful grin. “Mary-Ellen’s been putting on a little weight, too.”
I said, “Oh.” His wife had been a skinny little thing when they married; a few more pounds wouldn’t have hurt her.
“She’s up to two hundred,” he said, sipping his Fernet-Branca almost as though he liked it, and added quickly, “She looks great, though. The only thing is, it gets kind of tricky to, uh, make contact. If you know what I mean.” He gave me a look both comical and gloomy and began to tell me about his doctor’s advice, which was no good because, basically, it came down to eating less—and, my God, hadn’t he been trying to do that for years?—and his wife’s best girlfriend’s advice, which was to put planks under the mattress so Mary-Ellen wouldn’t, you know, sink out of reach.