The Image of Christian
by J. Crispin-Ripley
He might as well be comfortable waiting for Grace, presuming Grace existed. Christian chose a bench near the junction of two main paths, and sat. Although the park was alive with people, most were only passing through, journeying from one part of the widespread University of Noronto campus to another. He opened the cardboard cup of coffee he'd bought at the subway station and took a sip. It was dreadful but drinkable... just.
A cluster of students debating the logic of the registration process drifted past. One joked that getting properly enrolled was a secret test. If they got the right pieces of paper to the appropriate places within the time allotted, their academic success was guaranteed. That earned a collective, nervous laugh. Christian smiled to himself. In the ten years since he'd graduated, the jokes hadn't changed.
He put down his coffee and leaned back on the bench to enjoy the morning. It was warm for the middle of September--the smell of freshly mown grass mingled with the scent of the nearby flowers, neatly planted in rectangular beds. A black squirrel scuttled past, then stopped to see if Christian had any squirrel treats. It gave him a baleful look when none were forthcoming and continued on to investigate a garbage can. When Christian took the printout of the Internet job posting he'd replied to from his pocket, the squirrel looked back. Still seeing no food, it sat on its haunches and delivered a short squirrel curse before continuing about its business.
Christian read the ad again. "Generalist: DOS⁄Dostoevsky. Seeking adventure? If you know something about computers, literature and the social sciences, send me your resume. Also, explain what DOS and Dostoevsky have in common, and how they differ." The sender's name was purportedly Grace X Machina.
He wasn't looking for adventure, just a job, but he had the qualifications--such as they were. He had replied, "Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot and didn't make much of a living. I'm not sure what idiot wrote the original DOS, but someone who didn't made a fortune from it. Both DOS and Dostoevsky are now considered largely of historical interest, but do have their aficionados. My resume follows..."
Grace's response was that if he was in the park between eleven and twelve she would find, and interview him. Which sounded as unlikely as her name--Christian suspected a prank. However, since the alternative was to spend another day in his shoebox apartment, contacting companies at random to solicit work, he'd decided to chance being played for a sucker.
It was proving a good decision. Not only was it a lovely day, but the scenery was excellent. His eyes wandered to a rangy woman in white tights, sauntering along on the grass. That wasn't illegal, merely unusual--people normally kept to the paths. There wasn't anything ordinary about this woman though and from the way she moved, she knew it. Luxuriant red hair spilled down her shoulders and over her halter-top. Her stride had the confidence of experience. Christian tore his eyes away to again admire the flowers. They looked as before.
Another glimpse of the woman would be far more interesting. It would make both of them happy. Only a few feet away now, she met his eyes, smiled, and stopped.
"Registering...?" Christian asked. He could have found a more inventive opening line.
"No, nice try though." The expression on her angular face put Christian in mind of a fox viewing a sea of unguarded chickens. "I'm not a student," she continued. "I have, however, done considerable research in postgraduate Biology."
To look up and meet her eyes (pale green, fading into nothing), he had to ignore the scanty top jutting into his field of vision. Quickly recognising the impossibility of that, he stood. She was even taller than he'd thought, barely less than his six foot four.
What to say to a goddess? "Sorry if I was staring. I'm waiting for someone I don't know. I don't know you, so I was checking to see if you were looking for someone." His words sounded lame. Christian felt a flush of embarrassment spread over his face. When he faced a beautiful woman his brain always tied itself in knots and his tongue went numb.
Her eyes met his and narrowed. He was at her mercy, and they both knew it. She put her snakeskin briefcase on the bench by his abandoned coffee. A flick of her head sent long hair swaying; it brushed Christian, making him shiver.
She grinned. Even her teeth were perfect. "Another feeble excuse. You don't think any better on your feet, do you? Well, while I'm tempted to take advantage, I must admit I'm not your blind date." She moved closer--a breath separated them.
"It's not a date. I answered a help-wanted ad..." He found himself babbling the story. This was the reticent Christian Plowman? He couldn't read her expression; he wasn't sure if she was interested or amused, and wasn't sure he cared.
"If you think it's a joke, come with me."
Christian shook his head. "No, I'll wait until noon. I made a commitment."
"Oh, how disappointing. I own several businesses myself, and I can always accommodate a strong, handsome man like you. Don't you want to come?" She touched Christian's arm. He gasped--her hand felt like an iron, branding his flesh. Another headshake was the most articulate response he could manage.
She withdrew her hand, stepped back and bent to retrieve her briefcase, treating him to the depths her top contained. She hesitated, her other hand on his coffee. "You going to drink this?"
Another headshake. "No. It's probably cold by now." Hard as he tried, he couldn't keep his eyes on hers. Her breasts were magnificently full.
"Then throw it out." She kept the cup as she straightened. "Unless you feel obliged to drink it. You must have intended to when you bought it."
"That's different," he answered, taking the cup from her.
"I'm not so sure," she responded. "Well then, may I?" Her pale eyes flickered towards the garbage can and back.
"Be my guest." He offered her the unwanted coffee.
Her hand lingered on his as she took it. "But you're still sure you don't want to come with me instead of waiting around?"
"No, I'm not sure. I just know it's what I have to do."
"Very well then." After depositing the coffee in the garbage can, she took a business card from her case and gave it to Christian. "So be it. Some other time then. I must run."
She didn't quite run. Christian glanced at the card. "Lucille M. Firman, Subterranean Enterprises--Sole Proprietor". She had a toll-free phone number. The only address was for e-mail--interestingly, her address was at diluvia.org, as was that of the mysterious Grace.
"Lucille!" he called. "You didn't get my name."
She stopped and looked back. "I'm Lucy to my friends. Do get in touch, Christian. Soon." She hurried on.
She knew his name? He must have introduced himself and forgotten, befuddled by her head-clouding presence. Christian slipped the card into his shirt pocket and admired Lucy's rapid yet unhurried departure. She flowed effortlessly, red hair swinging. Her tights fit like skin, leaving little to the imagination. Christian imagined all the same.
As Lucy reached the road at the edge of the park a black limo pulled up in front of her and she got in, without looking back. Christian filed a salacious daydream in the corner of his mind, to be dealt with later. If the interview with this purported Grace turned out to be a joke now, he doubted he'd appreciate the humour. But if so, he could always contact Lucy. He suspected he would anyway, or if he didn't, she would contact him. She had the aura of someone who got what she wanted, or else. If she wanted him, however improbable that might seem, he was doomed.
But what a doom! Christian couldn't keep Lucy's image tucked away and got lost in a replay of her approach. This time he stood and took a step towards her. Without a word she melted into his arms and pressed against him, her body searing his...
He wrenched himself away from Lucy. A short, dark woman in a brilliant red pantsuit stood in front of him, smiling. Slung over one shoulder was an immense purse.
"Yes? Oh! You must be Grace." It wasn't his day for making good first impressions.
"Indeed I must." She swung her bag onto the bench. "No, don't bother standing," she continued as she sat. Christian hadn't moved. "The weight of that darn thing on my shoulder gets to be too much after a while." She peered into it. "Here now, your resume's on top. Since you're sitting in front of me, I don't need it." She crumpled the paper into a ball and flipped it over her shoulder in the general direction of the trash bin. The wind caught it and deposited it dead centre. "The job's yours. Oh yes, my card." Her arm went elbow-deep into the bag.
Her card could have been from the same discount printer as Lucy's--"Grace X Machina, consultant", a local phone number, and the diluvia.org address he'd written to earlier. It didn't tell Christian anything he needed to know about his prospective employer but as Grace had said of him, she was here and he could ask.
Grace held up a hand. "Wait. I hope you were about to accept, but I do have reservations--for lunch. I don't want to pressure you, so I won't ask for your answer until after."
"Thank you." Christian took out his wallet and put Grace's card in where folding money was supposed to go. He considered transferring Lucy's card from his pocket and decided against. If Grace noticed he might have to tell her about his encounter with Lucy and he wasn't sure he could. He wasn't sure what had happened, if anything--or whether Lucy's proposition had been long term or short. He did know he needed gainful employment more than he needed sex and that Grace's offer was unequivocal. He couldn't afford to turn her down.
"Come along now." Grace stood, grabbed her purse and started to walk in one fluid motion.
"What sort of consultant are you, Grace?" Christian asked when he caught up.
"I've been called an efficiency expert, trend analyst, councillor, fortune-teller, business advisor... take your choice. Me, I don't call myself anything at all. People tell me their dreams and if I like them and they sound sure of themselves, I tell them to go ahead, and put them in touch with others I think can help. When things work out, I get a percentage." She gave a trilling laugh. "The better part of success is surrounding yourself with the right people." She smiled--teeth as perfect as Lucy's. "I also do personnel searches. I expect to be asked to start one today, but I'm going to be away from Noronto for a while so I need someone to stand in for me--you."
"What will I do as your stand-in?"
Grace grabbed his hand and pulled him to an abrupt halt. "How could I know? You'll be the one doing it." Her purse bumped him. "Trust to instinct and do what you feel is right. I'm hiring you because you have good sense and a good heart."
"But..." That wasn't on his resume. And she obviously didn't know him at all, didn't know what a mess he'd made of his life.
"And don't doubt yourself." Grace took his other hand. "Your decisions will have my blessing, whatever they are, okay?"
"Someday you'll be able to answer that question for yourself. Right now… I want my lunch. Chez Celeste awaits."
Christian thought he knew Noronto well but he'd never heard of Chez Celeste. It was close by in a large brownstone, on a side street. From the cars outside, the restaurant was upscale. Its sign was a small brass plaque on the door with lettering too fine to be seen from the sidewalk. Chez Celeste wasn't a place one would find by accident.
Grace was clearly known there, and well respected; she was greeted with a bow and they were immediately shown to an alcove, ahead of others who were waiting. The decor was simple and elegant, plain wood that didn't need ornamentation to show its quality. The patrons suited the establishment--Christian recognized a number of faces he'd seen on television or on the front pages of newspapers, although in many cases not recently. He felt underdressed and was, by a considerable margin, the youngest person in the room.
"Any time you want a table, call Uri and mention you work for me." Grace reached into her purse, took out another card and wrote a name and number at the bottom. "He'll find room for you, no matter what. Bring your friends."
She slid the card across the table. "And now, if you'll indulge me, I should check my messages." She extracted a small laptop from her luggage, pulled out its antenna, tapped a few keys, and waited. "Oh good, Cosmo says any time this afternoon is fine. I'll tell him we'll be there after lunch." After typing her reply she pushed in the antenna and closed the lid.
The food arrived, a small omelette and salad for Christian, and an immense Caesar for Grace. She lifted her fork and looked at him. "Okay. Tell me about yourself, things you wouldn't put on a resume like your life story or your philosophy. Or don't. But no business talk until lunch is over."
Christian wanted to ask if the "Cosmo" they were going to see was the one and only Cosmo Sharpe, Noronto's home-grown media mogul and self-proclaimed prophet. But that would be business, so instead he offered Grace part of the chronicles of Christian. That was much easier to relate than his philosophy--as far as he was aware, he didn't have one.
He glossed over his past jobs and how after he'd been laid off from the last, he hadn't been able to find another. The economy had gone into depression and from the viewpoint of many unemployed people, including Christian, had never recovered. He felt lucky though; his previous job had lasted seven years and he'd saved enough to see him through three lean ones. Many had been less fortunate.
Then he told Grace about Cleopatra Wong. He'd lost her soon after he lost his job. He'd met her at university when she'd been a business student and he an English major, drifting towards a degree. Cleo had given him direction, pushing him up a corporate ladder she found for him after graduation.
After the lay-off, she got him a position selling life insurance on commission. He discovered what he was expected to sell was fear and an expensive balm to assuage it--he walked away from that within the month. Cleo left him a week later, claiming she was moving in with a man she'd been maintaining an affair with for years. Christian didn't know if that had been the truth but hadn't seen or heard from Cleo since, or made any attempt to replace her.
Grace listened; making the socially accepted grunts and gestures that indicate one is paying attention. When the waiter asked if they would like dessert she ordered coffee and a double chocolate cheesecake for Christian, and a coffee for herself. When it arrived, Christian decided to give the treat his full and proper attention and quickly wound up his monologue.
He took a bite. The cheesecake was heavy and rich, cloying. He put his fork down. Grace looked at him over the rim of her full cup. "And so the past became the present, and then the future. What has been, always will be." She sipped and put the cup down. "To ensure this, when you meet someone new, you hand them a snapshot of Christian as the failure you know him to be, kindly saving them the trouble of creating their own Christian." She sighed. "It's time for a new image. You've presented me with the essence of the old. Now leave it behind. The waiter will put it out with the trash."
"I can't, Grace. You could fire up your computer and tap into databases that would tell you everything about me."
"Maybe, and yes maybe anyone could--if they bothered. But it wouldn't have sad music playing in the background. Besides, anything found there would need to be interpreted. Facts and figures are meaningless."
Christian shook his head. "You don't understand, Grace. This is the Information Age."
"Squawk! Information age--information age--Polly want a cracker--information age." Heads turned in their direction. Grace laughed, and lowered her voice. "Nonsense. This is an age of faith, just like any other. All that data gets shaped and moulded by the prophets of this so-called Information Age to create the reality they choose. These are the New Dark Ages, Christian. Ignorance rules, as always." She waved for the bill.
"But isn't that what you do, Grace?" She looked puzzled, so he elaborated. "Don't you analyse the available resources and the production and sales data when you make business plans for your clients?"
Grace laughed again, softly. "Bafflegab. No, I leave that sort of thing to others. My focus is on finding clients who know people are more than human resources and on finding people who won't contort into whatever shape they think is demanded. The best I hire for myself. You'll do well, Christian. Trust me."
She signed the cheque and stood. "But from now on let others decide for themselves who you are. Remember you left the old Christian behind, and see what happens. Let's go. Cosmo Sharpe awaits."
That answered Christian's earlier unvoiced question, although he'd been reasonably sure Cosmo Sharpe was the "Cosmo" Grace had meant. She'd said the name like it was a complete identification, like "Elvis" or "Madonna". In Noronto, Cosmo was probably as well known.
Outside, Grace walked to the curb and raised her hand. A taxi pulled up immediately and they got in. "The Factory," Grace told the driver. With a squeal of tires the taxi made a U-turn and sped down the street.
Grace turned to Christian. "Okay, let's hear what you think you know about Cosmo. The short version, please."
Christian closed his eyes, half to show he was thinking, and half to avoid watching as the taxi swung sharply around a slow-moving Volvo. "Cosmo started by buying a small radio station in the '60's. It was the first to play rock 24 hours a day and it took off. When I got to Noronto fifteen years ago, it was the country's leading station. Personally, I don't care for it anymore."
Grace cleared her throat. The cab lurched to the right. Christian reluctantly opened his eyes and tried to focus on Grace and ignore the cab's weaving path. "The short version," Grace said. "And not the Christian-centred version."
"Sorry. I'll stick to the facts. If they are facts. Cosmo's legend has been told by the stations he owns, so its accuracy is suspect."
Grace smiled. "Yes. He gives himself a positive spin, perhaps too much so, much like the old Christian gave himself a negative one. I'm glad you can see that. Continue."
"Okay, well, his is the basic rags-to-riches⁄man-with-a-vision-story." Grace's nod said she understood.
Christian took a tentative glance to see where they were--how long he'd have to sum up Cosmo. Not long--the driver was making excellent if reckless progress. "Cosmo owns the modestly named COSMO-TV, four or five cable channels, some international satellite services, and dozens of radio stations. A few years ago he moved operations to the building we're going to, The Factory. It's a converted shoe-assembly plant on the self-declared avant-garde part of The Street. Cosmo will put anything on the air, as long as it gets an audience. Short enough?"
"Not bad. Judgmental." The cab screeched to a halt in front of a grey-brick building with large, smoked-glass windows. "I've known Cosmo since before his beginnings. He's not his legend." Grace dropped a bill onto the front seat as they got out. "Few of us are." The taxi disappeared in a cloud of exhaust. Grace stopped outside The Factory's door and waited for Christian to catch up. "And do remember to let people make their own decisions about you. Follow the flow, and you'll be fine." She hurried into the building.