Friday, February 20, 2009
The New Weed
Snow whipped through the air in great blinding sheets, illuminated now and again in conic sections under the intermittently working street lamps. The roads were all but deserted at this late hour, save for the occasional taxi that forged its way through the growing drifts, as yet un-cleared by the city’s plows. On the sidewalk – or where the sidewalk might be, were it not covered over by several inches of compacted ice and slush – a solitary figure trudged forward, identity and even gender hidden under several layers of dark winter clothing.
The casual passerby might have no idea whom the figure was, but she wasn’t so foolish at to imagine that her identity was hidden from anyone who actually mattered. The cameras were everywhere, encased in black globes that hung from the lamp posts and hydro poles like engorged tumors, and even if they couldn’t make her out the AI would most certainly have noticed when she left her apartment, and tracked her progress since. Not because she was doing anything suspicious; everyone was watched.
Up ahead, on the street corner, light spilled from the windows of an all-night 7-11. Her pace hurried as she neared it, eager to get out of the cold. Inside she was confronted by several aisles of gaudy magazines and brightly packaged junk food. The door to the bathroom opened, and a careworn older woman stepped out. For a second their eyes met, mutual recognition of their common humanity flashed between them, then the old lady dropped her gaze as though the contact had burned her and she hurried out the store.
She grabbed a bowl of instant ramen that purported to have real vegetables. She didn’t take that claim too seriously, but the hungry will eat anything, even if they know it to be poison. And getting real vegetables was almost impossible, these days, anyhow … at least, if by ‘real’, you meant ‘unadulterated’.
There was a tall, middle-aged man behind the counter, of Indian or Pakistani origin, with eyes that had seen much and a lined face that betrayed nothing. She approached him, placing the bowl on the counter. “Will that be all?” He asked tonelessly, waving the package over an RFID scanner.
“Um….” She started, and finding her voice missing, coughed to clear her throat. “‘Compassion is the Light that binds all Virtue,’” she murmured.
“I’m sorry?” the man said, the question polite but giving no hint that he might know.
She licked her lips, feeling her stomach twist as the man’s calm gaze regarded her like a bug, giving no clue one way or the other whether the phrase meant anything to him. Young and attractive, she wasn’t used to being looked at in such a fashion, and she had to dig into her emotional reserves to find the courage to repeat, “Compassion is the….”
“Yes, I heard you the first time. That’s very poetic,” the man said.
She laughed, nervously, suddenly certain that she must have the wrong place, that this whole expedition had been an exercise in futility. Had Shankar given her the wrong place? Or had she misunderstood the directions? She hadn’t dared look them up online: no one googled a convenience store. Doing so would have set off red flags. Way too much of a heatscore.
“Do you mind if I use the bathroom?” She asked, though she had no need of the bathroom.
“Yes, go ahead,” the man said. “Would you like me to heat this up for you?”
“Yes, please,” she murmured, and hurried off towards the door.
The stall was large and modern, made to accommodate a wheel-chair, with a folding changing table on the wall. The tiles were cracked, with graffiti carved into them. The smell of spilt urine filled her nostrils. She scanned around, looking for some clue to the hidden doorway that Shankar had said was to be found here, and seeing no sign of it felt again the sense of failure and despair rising within her like a black tide.
There was a soft click. A crack appeared as a small hatch opened, it’s edges cunningly disguised by the tiles. Biting her lip, she pushed at it, and it swung open silently on well oiled hinges. Rough wooden steps descended into the darkness.
Relief flooded through her. She’d found the right place after all. Steeling herself, she crouched down to get through the hatch and made her way down, stairs creaking under her feet. “Hello?” she whispered. There was no response, until she got to the bottom of the staircase and sensed more than heard a quick motion behind her. Before she could turn around to look, she felt cold metal pressed up against her temple. She froze.
“Easy, now,” said a quiet, gravelly smoker’s voice, the gun’s owner.
A pair of hands came out of nowhere, frisking her and waving a wand over her body. “She’s clean,” said a second voice, so deep she felt it in her bones.
The pistol dropped away, someone flicked a light-switch and she found herself in a narrow basement, cracked concrete floor and cinderblock walls unadorned save for row upon row of steel shelving, densely packed with a profusion of dried greenery wrapped in plastic baggies. There were three people around her, two of them obvious gangsters wearing black leisure suits, one a wiry man pocketing the pistol, the other a massive body-builder. The third was a short woman, middle-aged, with lines of grey in her hair and laugh lines around her eyes. The woman regarded her visitor with a look equal parts sympathy and suspicion, and asked, “How did you find us, dear?”
“Through a friend,” she said. “Um, he said to tell you his name was Steven.” Which wasn’t Shankar’s real name, of course, but then he’d been very clear that under no circumstances was anyone at this establishment interested in knowing any of their customers’ real names, just as they were especially uninterested in their customers knowing who they were. ‘Steven’ was another code word, just like the pass-phrase she’d used to get in.
The name seemed to work. The woman relaxed a bit, nodded and said, “What brings you to us, then, dear?”
“Cancer,” she blurted, and as she said it the word rolled through her with all its terrible force. “I, ah, I’ve been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor,” she lifted her hand, touched a spot behind above her ear, “Right here. There are no symptoms yet, but they want to start chemo sometime next month, and….”
“And you don’t want to let them poison you,” the woman nodded, as though she’d heard it all before. Which, her visitor reflected, she doubtless had.
The woman cocked her head. “From the placement of the tumor, I’m guessing it’s from your cell phone. Do you have one?”
She nodded. “Yes, and I….”
The woman held up her hand. “Spare me. Those things are deadly. I’d say get rid of it but then how would you survive? Do you have a silk scarf? No? Get one. Keep it wrapped about your head and neck at all times, like a hijab. Ever notice how few Muslim women get brain cancer? No? I sure have.” She sighed. “Well, then. Enough with the free advice. You didn’t come here to chat, and if you stick around too long the Watchers might wonder what’s taking you so long in the bathroom.” She stood up, walked towards the wall, her hand moving along a shelf until it found what she was looking for, a plastic baggie about the size of her fist, containing a mixture of crushed, dried plants. “Here,” she held the baggie up, “This is a preparation of aloe vera, echinacea, lantana, violet, pau d’arco, and blood root. Mix in about a teaspoon a day, three times a day until it’s all gone, which should be about three weeks.”
“And that will kill the tumor?”
The woman shrugged. “It’s more likely to work than whatever they’ll do to you in the hospital. With the added bonus that it won’t, itself, make you sick.”
“And … how much should I….” she reached for her wallet.
The woman shook her head, pressing the package into her customer’s hand. “We don’t take money here. Too easy to trace, these days.” She smiled, seeing the surprised look on her visitor’s face. “Oh, don’t worry. We’ll collect, one way or another. If you live, that is. If it doesn’t work, well,” she shrugged, “It wouldn’t be right to ask payment. But if you do, you owe us. We will find you, someday – we have our ways – maybe in a month, maybe in a year. But we will be in touch, and we will expect a favor.”
“Yes. A favor, a service, call it what you will. Was this not explained to you?” Annoyance flashed over her face, clearing away like a summer storm. “I can’t say what it will be, exactly, there’s no way of knowing in advance. It will likely be something illegal, if not immoral.” The woman sighed, again, and for a moment her visitor saw through the hard exterior life had forced her to develop, saw the deep well of compassion that motivated her, at war with her frustration at the stupidity and malevolence of a world that had made medicinal herbs that had been used for thousands of years illegal, forcing healers like herself into the company of thugs and criminals. It was not so long ago that those men would have made their living growing and dealing weed; now, with the list of illegal plants greatly expanded, they grew and dealt weeds.
“Thank you,” she said, cupping the bag of precious herbal tea in her hand like an offering. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Thank you….”
“Save it,” the woman said, the shell snapping closed like the wings of a beetle. "One more thing. If you meet someone who wants our services, tell them to say to the counterman, 'The light of heaven shines from logos'. Repeat that, please. Thank you. Don't forget it, that's the next person's pass-phrase. If they say it the guy at the counter will let them use the restroom, otherwise it's employee's only. And tell them ... Maria sent you."
"That's right. You’ve been down here long enough, Maria. Get away before you the AI catches a bad case of the suspicions.”
Maria hurried back up the stairs.