The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Book: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman Read Free Book Online
Authors: Tom Rachman
with Humphrey’s laundry) and sought out the smokers—always easiest to start a conversation with. Any mean-faced jerk was her preference, the more unpleasant the better. She borrowed his lighter, sparked a cigarette, and complained that she had to fly home early because her grandma had fallen ill in Florida. While stepping away to the vending machines, she entrusted her backpack to the guy, then returned with a look of astonishment and something in her palm: Hey, is this that key on the reward posters? At a phone booth, they called the posted number. Frantic with excitement, the key’s owner promised to drive over immediately with the generous cash reward; he’d arrive in an hour. Alas, Tooly couldn’t wait—she had her flight to catch. However, the man on the phone (Venn) demanded that she wait. Appearing befuddled, she thrust the phone at her new acquaintance. Venn told him that this girl had just agreed on five hundred dollars for the key—give her the money now and I’ll refund you as soon as I arrive. Hell, I’ll quadruple it, if you stay put: two thousand in cash, plus thefive hundred you gave the girl. Her unpleasant new companion sprinted to the closest ATM (Tooly helpfully pointing it out), and withdrew as close to five hundred dollars as possible. She gave him the key and hastened to the cab stand—no time for the airport train now! When, after an hour or two, the guy was still waiting, he irritably tried the number on the reward posters. It rang and rang.
    But such high jinks had dwindled away—Venn came to see them as cheap, as did she. And he was occupied with more legitimate endeavors now. Yet he looked after her all the same, arranging her travel to each new city, finding lodgings for her and Humphrey. Weeks might pass without word from Venn. Then he’d phone. His voice—grin audible—immediately erased her disappointment that he’d not been in touch.
    He was maddening, he was unpredictable, he was late. But he always arrived in the end. So, she waited.
    “Any brilliant new ideas?” she asked.
    “Lots, duck. But what are yours?” He gazed across at the rooftops. “I brought you here to see these kids downstairs—your age, more or less—coming up with things. You don’t want to end up like Humph. Need to make your own propulsion.”
    Humphrey sent those ridiculous letters on her behalf (“Attention New York Times: I have young lady you must be interest in….”) because he was certain of her quality. Venn was more measured, and that wounded Tooly. But he was correct: she had produced nothing. Humphrey always claimed that the tumult of the twentieth century had ruined his prospects, that he’d been “cornered by history.” But Tooly had grown up in an era of relative calm, after all the proper history had ended. She’d been too young to understand the hoopla of the Berlin Wall falling or the protests in Tiananmen Square, her awareness dawning around Operation Desert Storm and the L.A. riots, countries splitting up and ruining all the maps, then the O. J. Simpson trial, a computer that beat humankind at chess, the cloned sheep named Dolly, an English princess dying in a car crash, the most powerfulman in the world fornicating with an intern. They were scattershot events, none relating to any other, and certainly not to her.
    What, she wondered, would it have been like to live in an important era? How would she have acted during world wars? Humphrey had raised her with World War II and Soviet totalitarianism as the signal events —that history was her place and time, far from the banality of this peace. These days, it was as if the whole world, even New York City, aspired only to be Seattle. She wished the present would impose itself on her and determine her course.
    “Come,” Venn said, leading her back downstairs.
    As they strode along Canal Street, he said nothing. She wanted him to speak, so that she might learn his mood—Tooly hated this quiet (though traffic blared beside

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