the seedy underbelly
This is fiction. Science will return shortly.
Cornelius Kipling doesn’t take No for an answer. He usually takes several of them–several No’s strung together in rapid sequence, each one louder and more adamant than the last one.
“No,” I told him over dinner at the Rhubarb Club one foggy evening. “No, no, no. I won’t bankroll your efforts to build a new warp drive.”
“But the last one almost worked,” Kip said pleadingly. “I almost had it down before the hull gave way.”
I conceded that it was a clever idea; everyone before Kip had always thought of warp drives as something you put on spaceships. Kip decided to break the mold by placing one on a hydrofoil. Which, naturally, made the boat too heavy to rise above the surface of the water. In fact, it made the boat too heavy to do anything but sink.
“Admittedly, the sinking thing is a small problem,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “But I’m working on a way to adjust for the extra weight and get it to rise clear out of the water.”
“Good,” I said. “Because lifting the boat out of the water seems like a pretty important step on the road to getting it to travel through space at light speed.”
“Actually, it’s the only remaining technical hurdle,” said Kip. “Once it’s out of the water, everything’s already taken care of. I’ve got onboard fission reactors for power, and a tentative deal to use the International Space Station for supplies. Virgin Galactic is ready to license the technology as soon as we pull off a successful trial run. And there’s an arrangement with James Cameron’s new asteroid mining company to supply us with fuel as we boldly go where… well, you know.”
“Right,” I said, punching my spoon into my crème brûlée in frustration. The crème brûlée retaliated by splattering itself all over my face and jacket.
“See, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to you if you invested in my company,” Kip helpfully suggested as he passed me an extra napkin. “You’d have so much money other people would feed you. People with ten or fifteen years of experience wielding dessert spoons.”
After dinner we headed downtown. Kip said there was a new bar called Zygote he wanted to show me.
“Actually, it’s not a new bar per se,” he explained as we were leaving the Rhubarb. “It’s new to me. Turns out it’s been here for several years, but you have to know someone to get in. And that someone has to be willing to sponsor you. They review your biography, look up your criminal record, make sure you’re the kind of person they want at the bar, and so on.”
“Sounds like an arranged marriage.”
“You’re not too far off. When you’re first accepted as a member, you’re supposed to give Zygote a dowry of $2,000.”
“That’s a joke, right?” I asked.
“Yes. There’s no dowry. Just the fee.”
“Two thousand dollars? Really?”
“Well, more like fifty a year. But same principle.”
We walked down the mall in silence. I could feel the insoles of my shoes wrapping themselves around my feet, and I knew they were desperately warning me to get away from Kip while I still had a limited amount of sobriety and dignity left.
“How would anyone manage to keep a place like that secret?” I asked. “Especially on the mall.”
“They hire hit men,” Kip said solemnly.
I suspected he was joking, but couldn’t swear to it. I mean, if you didn’t know Kip, you would probably have thought that the idea of putting a warp drive on a hydrofoil was also a big joke.
Kip led us into one of the alleys off Pearl Street, where he quickly located an unobtrusive metal panel set into the wall just below eye level. The panel opened inwards when we pushed it. Behind the panel, we found a faint smell of old candles and a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs–which turned out to run three stories down–we came to another door. This one didn’t open when we pushed it. Instead, Kip knocked on it three times. Then twice more. Then four times.
“Secret code?” I asked.
“No. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
The door swung open.
“Evening, Ashraf,” Kip said to the doorman as we stepped through. Ashraf was a tiny Middle Eastern man, very well dressed. Suede pants, cashmere scarf, fedora on his head. Feather in the fedora. The works. I guess when your bar is located behind a false wall three stories below grade, you don’t really need a lot of muscle to keep the peasants out; you knock them out with panache.
“Welcome to Zygote,” Ashraf said. His bland tone made it clear that, truthfully, he wasn’t at all interested in welcoming anyone anywhere. Which made him exactly the kind of person an establishment like this would want as its doorman.
Inside, the bar was mostly empty. There were twelve or fifteen patrons scattered across various booths and animal-print couches. They all took great care not to make eye contact with us as we entered.
“I have to confess,” I whispered to Kip as we made our way to the bar. “Until about three seconds ago, I didn’t really believe you that this place existed.”
“No worries,” he said. “Until about three seconds ago, it had no idea you existed either.”
He looked around.
“Actually, I’m still not sure it knows you exist,” he added apologetically.
“I feel like I’m giving everyone the flu just by standing here,” I told him.
We took a seat at the end of the bar and motioned to the bartender, who looked to be high on a designer drug chemically related to apathy. She eventually wandered over to us–but not before stopping to inspect the countertop, a stack of coasters with pictures of archaeological sites on them, a rack of brandy snifters, and the water running from the faucet.
“Two mojitos and a strawberry daiquiri,” Kip said when she finally got close enough to yell at.
“Who’s the strawberry daiquiri for,” I asked.
“Me. They’re all for me. Why, did you want a drink too?”
I did, so I ordered the special–a pink cocktail called a Flamingo. Each Flamingo came in a tall Flamingo-shaped glass that couldn’t stand up by itself, so you had to keep holding it until you finished it. Once you were done, you could lay the glass on its side on the counter and watch it leak its remaining pink guts out onto the tile. This act was, I gathered from Kip, a kind of rite of passage at Zygote.
“This is a very fancy place,” I said to no one in particular.
“You should have seen it before the gang fights,” the bartender said before walking back to the snifter rack. I had high hopes she would eventually get around to filling our order.
“Yes,” Kip said. “Gang fights. Used to be big old gang fights in here every other week. They trashed the place several times.”
“It’s like there’s this whole seedy underbelly to Boulder that I never knew existed.”
“Oh, this is nothing. It goes much deeper than this. You haven’t seen the seedy underbelly of this place until you’ve tried to convince a bunch of old money hippies to finance your mass-produced elevator-sized vaporizer. You haven’t squinted into the sun or tasted the shadow of death on your shoulder until you’ve taken on the Bicycle Triads of North Boulder single-file in a dark alley. And you haven’t tried to scratch the dirt off your soul–unsuccessfully, mind you–until you’ve held all-night bargaining sessions with local black hat hacker groups to negotiate the purchase of mission-critical zero-day exploits.”
“Well, that may all be true,” I said. “But I don’t think you’ve done any of those things either.”
I should have known better than to question Kip’s credibility; he spent the next fifteen minutes reminding me of the many times he’d risked his life, liberty, and (nonexistent) fortune fighting to suppress the darkest forces in Northern Colorado in the service of the greater good of mankind.
After that, he launched into his standard routine of trying to get me to buy into the latest round of his inane startup ideas. He told me, in no particular order, about his plans to import, bottle and sell the finest grade Kazakh sand as a replacement for the substandard stuff currently found on American kindergarten sandlots; to run a “reverse tourism” operation that would fly in members of distant cultures to visit disabled would-be travelers in the comfort of their own living rooms (tentative slogan: if the customer can’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must come to the customer); and to create giant grappling hooks that could pull Australia closer to the West Coast so that Kip could speculate in airline stocks and make billions of dollars once shorter flights inevitably caused Los Angeles-Sydney routes to triple in passenger volume.
I freely confess that my recollection of the finer points of the various revenue enhancement plans Kip proposed that night is not the best. I was a little bit distracted by a woman at the far end of the bar who kept gesturing towards me the whole time Kip was talking. Actually, she wasn’t so much gesturing towards me as gently massaging her neck. But she only did it when I happened to look at her. At one point, she licked her index finger and rubbed it on her neck, giving me a pointed look.
After about forty-five minutes of this, I finally worked up the courage to interrupt Kip’s explanation of how and why the federal government could solve all of America’s economic problems overnight by convincing Balinese children to invest in discarded high school football uniforms.
“Look,” I told him, pointing down to the other side of the bar. “You see? This is why I don’t go to bars any more now that I’m married. Attractive women hit on me, and I hate to disappoint them.”
I raised my left hand and deliberately stroked my wedding band in full view.
The lady at the far end didn’t take the hint. Quite the opposite; she pushed back her bar stool and came over to us.
“Christ,” I whispered.
Kip smirked quietly.
“Hi,” said the woman. “I’m Suzanne.”
“Hi,” I said. “I’m flattered. And also married.”
“I see that. I also see that you have some food in your… neckbeard. It looks like whipped cream. At least I hope that’s what it is. I was trying to let you know from down there, so you could wipe it off without embarrassing yourself any further. But apparently you’d rather embarrass yourself.”
“It’s crème brûlée,” I mumbled.
“Weak,” said Suzanne, turning around. “Very weak.”
After she’d left, I wiped my neck on my sleeve and looked at Kip. He looked back at me with a big grin on his face.
“I don’t suppose the thought crossed your mind, at any point in the last hour, to tell me I had crème brûlée in my beard.”
“You mean your neckbeard?”
“Yes,” I sighed, making a mental note to shave more often. “That.”
“It certainly crossed my mind,” Kip said. “Actually, it crossed my mind several times. But each time it crossed, it just waved hello and kept right on going.”
“You know you’re an asshole, right?”
“Whatever you say, Captain Neckbeard.”
“Alright then,” I sighed. “Let’s get out of here. It’s past my curfew anyway. Do you remember where I left my car?”
“No need,” said Kip, putting on his jacket and clapping his hand to my shoulder. “My hydrofoil’s parked in the Spruce lot around the block. The new warp drive is in. Walk with me and I’ll give you a ride. As long as you don’t mind pushing for the first fifty yards.”