Frank's father was God Damned Pissed, is what he was. Frank II was otherwise occupied, and Frank I was so far past his expiration date nobody gave a damn what he thought. It was Frank III's desk that was covered in a steaming pile of Fourth Frank's shit. Frank III's thinking didn't lean easily toward reflection or introspection, but he woke up Wednesday morning wondering if shipping Fourth Frank off to Admiral Farragut at thirteen fell into the category of too little too late. The day school took boys K-7 and surely, they could have found somewhere to house him, but Emma retained control of the children from birth through the end of seventh grade, after which their education was dictated by their father.
Frank III rolled himself out of bed and shrugged it off. These things happen with first babies. Their mothers dropped them on their heads and doled out a year's worth of affection twice, maybe even three times a day. It was gut wrenching, nearly impossible to watch, but his time came with all of them. It was in the prenup.
Fourth Frank had three siblings, the eldest of which arrived two weeks before his tenth birthday. They named her Greenwich, with no other explanation than they liked the town. Fourth Frank couldn't recall ever having seen the town but was pretty sure it wasn't anywhere in the State of Maryland.
There was no way to reasonably shorten Greenwich, which left her without a built-in term of endearment. In the Evans household, a term of endearment was the flag that indicated how Mother was feeling at any point in time. He supposed there was an upside; Greenwich developed a thick hide early on, making it damn near impossible to rattle the girl. Five years later, Biff and Muffy were born. A joke, in poor taste, that their mother pulled off easily. Frank III didn't bother to acknowledge any of his children until they were delivered to the home. Emma minced through the front door waving two birth certificates in Frank III's face.
Frank III promptly renamed them Henry and Beatrice. They remained Biff and Muffy on paper, but according to Daddy, they were Hank and Bea. Aside from their mother, no one ever called them Biff or Muffy to their faces. Personally, Fourth Frank wasn't sure any one set of names was better than the other. He was still trying to figure out what made Greenwich tick, and by the time the twins arrived, he was already at Admiral Farragut.
Fourth Frank survived Admiral Farragut by the skin of his teeth. He graduated with honors because he spent most of his time hiding in a stall with a stack of books. However, death before the end of his first semester at the Citadel was a foregone conclusion. Fourth Frank's survival strategy was Stanford. There was no plan B.
He was counting on Stanford’s Information Science program being enough to get his father's attention. After that, Fourth Frank was thinking he might hang around for the medical program. He figured he could just keep going, take advantage of that Left Coast Right Coast buffer. If he continued to come out on top, Frank III wasn't likely to stop writing tuition checks.
Frank III wrote the last tuition check when Fourth Frank was twenty-eight. Fourth Frank may or may not have completed his education plan, but Frank III was done paying for it. Close to a million dollars in tuition followed Fourth Frank out the door and there didn't appear to be any sign of Return on Investment in the near future.
Fourth Frank showed up at the front door holding his father's letter. For the better part of three minutes, Fourth Frank pleaded his case. He needed to add ophthalmology as a separate field. If he put his head down and did nothing else, he could complete the additional three years in approximately fifteen months.
Frank III leaned back in his chair and eye-balled the lunatic that carried the family name. Frank III was very much looking forward to a Frank V, which would require a suitable wife and Fourth Frank had no social life, based on the number of degrees, internships, and fellowships he'd managed to accumulate.
"I've got a proposition for you, Son. Why don't you sit down, I'll pour you a... a, what is it you're drinking these days?"
"Beer, Dad. Very cheap beer."
"Great, I've got a couple excellent single malts over here, one finger or two?"
"Six. Please. Thank you."
"Ah, a man who drinks his whiskey from a tumbler is a man with trouble on his mind. Maybe we can come to an agreement, Frank, that will help us both sleep a little better."
Fourth Frank completed his education shortly before his thirtieth birthday. Two weeks later, he was installed in a lab at Delta Holdings. If he hadn't met Margaret at orientation, he might have hired Greenwich to kill him. Family innuendo suggested that while Greenwich was a student in good standing at Boston University, her primary career was already well established. He was hoping she'd give him a friends and family discount.
By the end of his first year as a Delta Lab Dork, he was certain he wouldn't be needing her services. After all, he had Margaret; and more importantly, Margaret had him.
Margaret didn't give a shit what was happening around her. There could be a firestorm outside the lab and unless somebody told her to get up and move her ass, she wasn't going anywhere. The politics that shellacked the walls of the building slid right off her back. Frank couldn't figure out if she simply failed to notice or truly did not give a shit. He decided it wasn't relevant. Margaret just was, and Margaret was Frank's salvation.
She called him Fourth Frank once, because some of the upper executives addressed him as Fourth Frank. She thought he was going to put her through a window. Just for a minute, and then he made his face smooth again. "I'm guessing you don't much like that."
"Margaret, that is about the most humiliating thing my father has ever done to me. I know it doesn't sound like a lot, and when you stack it up against what he did from eighth grade forward, it seems meaningless, but it's not. He poisoned my family. My mother, my siblings, my grandparents. He made me the family joke and he never let up. That name followed me to a military academy and nearly got me killed first week in. I was thirteen and I was beaten into a coma.”
Frank had been maintaining eye contact with the floor tiles but looked up to see if Margaret was still there. She didn’t often maintain silence through this sort of conversation. She hadn’t moved but looked stricken. He returned his attention to the tiles.
Frank spent the rest of the semester in the infirmary. Not because he didn't get better, because the medical staff was terrified of what might happen if they sent him back to the dorms. His father never called. His sister, Greenwich, sent a card which was probably the one sweet thing she’d done in her life. His mother called Harry & David and sent a six-foot tower of fruit and cheese-like products, and his teachers came in one at a time to establish an education plan to get him through the semester from the infirmary.
Frank looked at Margaret and said, “God. I loved those people."
"Jeeze, Frank, I think I love them for you."
Margaret was working nanotech as it applied to anything she could animate, automate, and send off to do her bidding. Frank was working on optics and the brain. The shared lab was the only thing they had in common until Frank made a career ending mistake. Anybody else would have escalated all the way to the top. Margaret looked at him and asked, "do you want to come to the stairwell with me and cry? I always think better afterward."
They went to the stairwell and Margaret cried for about five minutes. Frank went an entire hour. Margaret didn't have a tissue, so she gestured to his sleeve and said, "Frank, that sounded like half a lifetime of tears." Frank untucked his shirt, pulled it up to his face and blew. He wasn't willing to disgrace the white coat.
Margaret was a good friend. She pulled her skirt to her face and blew twice. When she was finished, she said, "Frank, I think we need to go back in there and find a way to salvage this. I'm thinking your chocolate fell into my peanut butter."
The product of Frank's accident launched the seed of an idea. Too outrageous to document, other than the notes that landed on a few dozen pads of yellow legal paper, Margaret was looking at the first piece of nanotechnology she found even remotely interesting. She got caught up in her work because Margaret was a machine; but Excited Margaret stopped sleeping. She stopped going home, neglected to shower, and went three weeks without brushing her teeth before Frank sat her down.
He couldn't honestly say he had a full grasp of what she was looking at, because the parts she passed on to him kept him fully engaged. Frank didn't much care to go home either, but he did keep a couple fresh shirts in a locker with spare shorts and socks. He kept his grooming paraphernalia in one of the lab drawers. Margaret was concerned about exactly none of this.
Feeling the need to explain herself, at least to Frank, she told him the story about the light in her room. She couldn't have been more than four or five because everything was still pink and purple and full of age-appropriate toys. She had a canopy bed from Sears and some of the French Provençal furniture that went with it. Her mother hung a crystal windchime from the center of the canopy. The crystals caught the morning light and painted rainbows across the walls. Little Margaret liked the rainbows well enough but wasn't much impressed. Crystals, refracted light, blah, blah, blah, give me something interesting.
Interesting had been hanging from her canopy since its installation, but it wasn't until Margaret woke up needing the bathroom that she noticed. The nightlight on her bedside table was out and heavy cloud cover eliminated any outside light. She shouldn’t have been able to see her hand in front of her face. And yet, there was light. Margaret stared up at the canopy and watched the crystals dance. There was no color, no splashing light against the walls, just the crystals dancing in their own light.
"It was magic, Frank. I know we don't use the M word, but it was. The light the crystals made was different. It was like, it was like, well, it was like nothing, Frank. I'd never seen light like that, and I haven't seen it since."
"What was different about it, Margaret? I mean, was it color, movement, lack of movement, shadow no shadow?"
Margaret thought about this for a while. "It was alive, Frank. That's all I got, it was alive and for a little while it sang."
"And now you're playing with microscopic weapons."
"Yes, Frank. Now I'm playing with microscopic weapons which, if used properly, will wipe out the sun."
Frank looked incredulous. "Margaret!"
"Margaret, you are not playing with microscopic weapons that can wipe out the sun. You're playing with ocular lenses. I know this because every time you get in over your head, you pass me the eyeball parts."
"Frank, do you want to get out of here?"
"Yeah, I could go for hot pizza and cold beer. What do you have in mind?"
"American Ophthalmologists' sole purpose is to better the future of mankind by improving vision. Holistically. Or something like that."
"Who are American Ophthalmologists?"
“We are. You and me and whoever we can take with us. What do you think it might take to get your father to play Venture Capitalist?"
"He's not going to do that Margaret. What he might do, with enough dollar signs in his face, is fund a subsidiary."
"You mean, Delta Holdings might fund a subsidiary?"
"Yup. Delta Holdings is owned by three people, Margaret: Frank Johnson Evans Sr., Frank Johnson Evans Jr., and Frank Johnson Evans the Third. In addition to that, Frank Johnson Evans the Third owns the Fourth Frank."
"That is dark, dude, seriously dark. How do we make them give us money?"
Frank sat in the stairwell. Everybody except the ubiquitous analysts had gone home. Even Margaret was gone. She'd escorted a very giddy Coop to his Prius and then followed him out of the parking lot. Laura took the kids and Marty and headed out just before nine. She didn't even say goodnight. He wasn't sure when Christie vanished, but he was pretty sure she'd locked herself up on the eighth floor. Frank was still sitting at Coop's ridiculous conference setup when the lights went out at ten.
Even in an empty building, a stairwell is still the safest place to hide, especially when you feel a shitstorm coming. Frank was pretty sure Coop's replacement wasn't going to be another Mr. Anderson. He climbed the stairs to the seventh floor, unlocked his office door and turned on the lights. Best guess, he had less than six hours to prepare for his father's arrival. Frank Johnson Evans III was the prototypical Barbarian at the Gate.
The last number he had for Greenwich was at least ten years old. She answered on the first ring.
"Hey there, big brother. I expected to hear from you about two days ago, you bloody masochist. How's it hanging these days, Cheesecake?"
"It's dangling by a thread, Sweet Cheeks."
"Awesome! Shall we get to work?"
"Want me to bring the beer?"
"No. You wait right there. You should see me in ten to twenty minutes; I'll let myself in."
The last time Frank saw Greenwich was at her high school graduation. That she graduated at all was an act of God; she was tossed from four egregiously expensive day schools before she was ten. In an act of desperation, her parents installed a fulltime tutor on the third floor, and Mrs. Evans spent the next three years sitting in a chair with a taser. On the upside, Mrs. Evans was unexpectedly fluent in three languages by the time they shipped Greenwich off to Vermont Academy with a large enough endowment to keep her indefinitely.
Frank had no doubt Greenwich would arrive as advertised, between ten and twenty minutes after she disconnected the call. In the meantime, he contemplated her ability to walk through those locked front doors in twenty minutes or less. Walking through locked doors was a talent Greenwich developed early but teleporting herself to his parking lot in Rhode Island was a new one.
He had no idea what to expect; people change a lot in ten years. What he was not expecting was a cleavage enhancing black vinyl cat suit and knee-high black boots with what had to be four-inch heels. The dark glasses made sense; she’d been sporting dark glasses since she was four.
She slapped a hot pizza box and roll of paper towels on his desk and held up a warm six-pack of Bud Lite. In cans. Perfect. If not for the ten years between them, he thought they might have been close. Greenwich smiled and pulled up a chair. Frank grimaced; it was all he had left. He contemplated mentioning the catsuit but wasn't sure he wanted the answer.
"Cosplay, Frank, it's just cosplay. I didn't have time to change. We're at the City Center convention building which is about six blocks from here. My hotel, on the other hand, is two miles the other direction."
"So, you're Cat Woman without a tail? Or ears? Whiskers?"
"You don't get out much, do you, Frank?"
"No, Greenwich, I pretty much live here."
"Trinity, Frank, I'm Trinity. You could be Neo if you'd like. I've got Neo's black trench coat and boots back in my room. Think I've got spare shades too. Maybe."
"Jesus, Frank. The Matrix was released in 1999. You were a fifteen-year-old geek! How could you possibly have missed that? Shit, I was five and convinced Mom it was an educational film.”
"Greenwich, where was I the year the twins were born?"
"Oh. Yeah, shit, sorry. I guess you missed out on some significant social and technological changes. Want a high-level summary?"
"Greenwich, where do I work now? Or, more accurately, what do I do?"
"Frank, I honestly have no idea. Up until last year I thought you were a dentist. At least that's what Mom said. Listen, I need to hit the head, can you direct me to the nearest socially acceptable facility for my gender? I'm not particular." Frank moved his head to the left, which was apparently enough information. He hoped getting out and back into that costume took some effort.
As soon as he heard the men's room door open and close, he flipped his laptop open and searched for current City Center events. The conference center appeared to be fully booked, as did every hotel in a twenty-mile radius. The Antique Road Show was in town for the week. A search on 'Cosplay City Center' returned a broken link from a 2012 article. He heard the door down the hall and closed his laptop.
Greenwich looked at his face and decided it might be best to jump straight to the bottom line. She took a seat on the other side of his desk and considered what she did and did not know about her brother. She didn't ask what he thought he needed or wanted; he clearly had no idea. That he knew when and how to call in the cavalry was all the information she needed to begin.
She started by putting a single card on the table. Just a quick litmus test to find out if he really did know what he'd summoned. She apologized for not knowing what he did to keep their father at arm's length and said she probably needed to fill him in on a few details as well. Greenwich leaned forward, took off her glasses, and asked how much he knew about her profession. As it turned out, he knew enough to make her nervous. She took the litmus card off the table. The man passed, top of his class.
Frank was trying to be polite. The last thing he wanted to do was sound righteous or judgmental. He didn't want to sound like their father, or, somehow worse, their mother. He didn't want to make unfair assumptions that might send her from the building and out of his life entirely. He liked her and discovered a deep well of admiration that had probably been there since she could walk, talk, and provoke adults into behavior they had trouble understanding. Frank chose to answer the unasked questions most likely to reveal what she wanted him to know. No more, no less. Greenwich was amused.
He didn't really know where to start and was afraid starting in the middle, or even right now, might require more time to back up and explain. Since he wasn't sure he could identify a starting point, he began with his first semester at Admiral Farragut. She nodded, and he continued. He explained how he escaped four years at the Citadel, but she already seemed to understand what he was doing at Stanford which stopped him short.
"Greenwich, Stanford University doesn't exactly have a dental school and even if it did, how could it possibly take twelve years to complete? I don't know you as well as I'd like, but I know you well enough. You would have figured that out in your sleep."
"You're right, and I'm sorry. I do happen to know exactly what you were doing at Stanford. The year I escaped from Vermont was the year Daddy cut you off financially. I was home when you came storming through the front door waving his letter at anybody willing to look.
I was sitting by the vent in the guest room right above his office when he made that phone call, and you sold your soul for one last significant degree. So, yes, Frank, I do know what you're capable of doing. What I don't know is how you got to AO. Was that your doing, or Daddy's? Tell me that and I might have a better idea of what our Fourth Frank is up to these days."
"Could you not..."
"Shit. I'm sorry. It's a term of endearment for me, and since I don't have one of my own, I'm particularly fond of yours. Why don't you keep going and if you lose me, I'll let you know.”
Frank touched briefly on Admiral Farragut, mostly to lay the groundwork of terror and control. Stanford was an escape; he didn't really have a plan other than to keep expanding his education plan until he ran out of time. He didn't expect to get ten years out of it, much less twelve, but the letter arrived at exactly the wrong time; something had finally blown him away and he'd have done just about anything to get that last degree under his belt. Greenwich nodded and suggested that their father knew exactly what was going on.
Frank walked Greenwich through his installation at the Delta lab and mentioned he might just have given her a call if it weren't for Margaret. Greenwich raised an eyebrow, but let it go because she knew what was coming next. She already knew about Frank's bid for funding. Their father laughed in his face. She knew it took more courage than Margaret knew she had to walk through that door and plead her own case. She was dismissed before she got past her own credentials. What she didn't understand was how Dr. Webb got roped into it. Frank produced a painless smile and said that was Margaret's work.
When they'd both been tossed from the office of Frank III, Fourth Frank was back on the stairwell, once again contemplating asking his sister for a friends and family discount. Margaret took his phone away and asked for a little patience. A couple of days, a week at the most. "Just go back to the lab", she told him. "Go back to the lab and keep working on the Reese’s Project. No documentation just notes on the pad. OK?" Frank gave her a miserable look but got up and returned to the lab.
Margaret went to the stairwell and started climbing stairs. At Delta, there are twelve floors between the labs and the executive suites. Mr. Evans had an office one floor up, but he was known to suddenly appear in the middle of the executive floor. Instant messages flashed from one administrative cube to the next: 3rdFrk on the floor!! One administrative assistant after another pushed the intercom button and whispered an agreed upon code word. Margaret couldn't risk the elevator or a walk across the floor. The stairwell, on the other hand, would deposit her eight inches from Dr. Webb's office.
Dr. Webb had nothing to do with medicine. He had a DBA from UCLA which made him a Doctor of Business Administration. That he had even an inkling of what she did, should not have been a shock, but it was. In retrospect, he may have been ahead of her. She had no idea why he gave her the weather station, but he clearly thought it would be useful at some point. Margaret decided that if the man thought well enough of her to present something of relevance, it might be worth the risk of being escorted from the building to get a bit of advice.
Margaret got more than advice. Dr. Webb got up from his desk and motioned for Margaret to follow. He opened the door and down they went. On the way, Dr. Webb tried to explain the concept of a Hail Mary Pass. She didn't quite get it but certainly understood the premise of the long shot. Frank was at a table doing his best to keep legible notes when they arrived. He looked up and muttered a brief greeting, assuming Webb was on walkabout and ran into Margaret.
Dr. Webb shut and locked the door and sat at the other side of the table. Margaret sat next to Frank and Dr. Webb said, "I don't care which of you begins, but let's have it right now, from the top. Don't assume I'm an advocate. Assume there's a long shot possibility that I can be convinced and give it everything you've got. I have two clear hours before somebody starts looking for me. Go!"
They nearly made it. If not for Frank's ability to keep Margaret from going down rabbit holes, Dr. Webb would have remained out of politeness, but his eyes would have rolled back into his head the first time she spewed statistics. At the end of two hours, Dr. Webb stood up and shook their hands. On his way to the door, he asked Margaret to accompany him back up twelve flights of stairs. On the way up, Dr. Webb asked if Margaret grasped the concept of a Hail Mary Pass yet. She nodded and said she had the general idea.
"I've got a proposition, Margaret. Are you willing to hear it? I don't think I can make the same offer to Fourth Frank; he'd have heart failure and think I was trying to have him executed." Margaret nodded and Dr. Webb continued. Dr. Webb's plan counted on Frank III's unwillingness to hear anything other than blah blah blah whine snivel blah from his son. If this was true, Frank III wouldn't have processed a damn thing. Since Margaret didn't get past her credentials and wasn't permitted to leave her presentation behind, he'd still be clueless.
"Margaret, to be clear, a Hail Mary Pass is a leap of faith. It's an act that defies all logic, it's simply not possible, and yet it's practiced anyway. Do you know why?"
"No, I really don't. If you think the chances of losing are at about 98%, why do you even bother?"
"Because of the 2%, Margaret. 2% is not zero."
"Why does it require a leap of faith?"
"Because everyone in play has got to believe with all their heart that it's not only possible, but well within their power. That's how you win when you absolutely cannot win."
Dr. Webb stopped one landing below his floor. He said he was embarrassed to even broach the subject because she might think badly of him, or worse, never trust him again. Margaret gave him a look and mumbled something about having faith or not having faith and shut her mouth.
"Margaret. I'm nearly certain that if I take this proposal to Frank III, I'll get the funding. Not only that, but I’ll also get to pick my team and transfer all of us to our own building once we've become a legal entity. That's the only way it's going to work. We might belong to Delta forever, but they're going to want the ability to distance themselves should we become an embarrassment or threat. We will want the right to spin-off at some point. Spin-off means severing ties with Delta entirely. And here's the hard part, Frank's name will never appear in print before the spin-off. Not on any published papers, no patents, no awards; not anything ever. He will be invisible outside the walls. Now, I'm going to need two things from you, Margaret. I need an executive level presentation with a cheat sheet, and I need Frank on board. This project isn't going anywhere without both of you yoked like a pair of oxen, and you have got to be completely honest with Frank."
"I can do that, Dr. Webb. I can make Frank understand, and I'll have the summary with cheat sheet on your desk first thing in the morning."
"Great! But, Margaret, I want Frank's summary and cheat sheet. You can't keep yourself on track to save your life."
Greenwich was examining the inner workings of Frank’s brain. "OK, I think I'm following well enough. You called me about wet work, didn't you?"
"Shit, Greenwich, I don't know. I just thought you could help."
"And you're afraid to get your conscience messy by even thinking about it. You want me to come up with and execute the resolution. That's OK, Frank, that's one of the things people pay me for. They pay me more to understand what they need without making them say it than they pay for the job itself. It's only in the movies where somebody meets you in a dark alley with very specific instructions and hands over a fat envelope with the promise of more upon completion. I send an invoice, Net 15, for the full amount when the job is done.
Listen, Frank, I really do want to help but you need to understand, even I have limits, and this is one of them. I don't eliminate immediate family members. Have you ever asked yourself why Miff and Buffy are still breathing? Do you have any idea how close to death one or both came before I went off to Vermont? If I had a list of people I most wanted dead in the world, they would be sitting together at the top. And yet, they still walk and talk leaving behind a trail of trauma and pain as if they were handing out bubble gum. So, I can't do that. I'm sorry."
"It's OK, Greenwich, I knew I was asking way too much and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't accept a contract I placed on myself either."
"Oh, that's not true. If you want to use my services as an end-of-life plan, I'm happy to take your money. Of course, that’s a pay up front deal."
"Well, I guess that's probably what I'm about to ask for, but I need to get Margaret in the clear first."
"Frank, I didn't say I couldn't help you. What I said was I couldn't do the wet work. At least not personally. The other thing to consider is what Daddy is and is not expecting when he storms those doors in about ninety minutes or less."
"He sure as shit won't expect to see his very scary daughter in a slick, black, catsuit. The boots are for effect, I kick 'em off if I have to do anything other than shoot. Worse, he will NOT expect to find his very scary daughter standing with his very scary son halfway down the lobby staircase; that’s a rather aggressive position if you think about it. Let's see what happens; are you up for it?"
"Sure, why not, what's one more Hail Mary for the team?"
"Your team sure does use that metaphor a lot. Are you sure it means what you think it means? Never mind that, who do you need to alert, right now?"
"Well, Christie's probably still face down in the dust mote room and it doesn't matter anyway. Best I can tell, there's only one thing that can kill her and it's not something most people would think of..."
"Frank! You made a golem! Good for you! Can't wait to meet her. So, who else?"
"There's Margaret and Coop, but Coop's got at least six lives left. Dude's a walking miracle."
"And Margaret? I know what she means to you."
"Ah, yeah, Margaret. Margaret's superpower is the ability to render herself absolutely invisible."
"Really? She can do that? Dr. Webb didn't say anything about that."
"Great. Dr. Webb. Never mind, you can share that later, although he will be in the building at some point. I just don't know when."
"And I don't think we need to worry about your gargoyle or the unicorn, am I right?"
"You are right."
"Frank, I don't want you to worry about Dr. Webb. I'm pretty sure he can take care of himself."
Frank's brow furrowed. "Uh, I'm a little worried about Marty Smythe and Jeffry Franklin. I don't think Laura's going to bring Jeffry in today, but she's still got possession of Margaret's new lab rat."
"Then we're going to leave it to Laura to keep them safe."
At 5:45 am, the Fourth Frank and his baby sister, Greenwich stood at the halfway point of the lobby staircase. It wasn't anywhere near dawn, but that's when Frank III preferred to storm gates. With any luck this would all be over before anyone else entered the building.
"Um, Frank. There's one other thing. I wasn't going to mention it, but now I'm feeling a little unsettled about the withhold."
"Greenwich, what could possibly be worse than the shit show as it is now?"
"Good way to look at it, Frank, because Webb is about to walk through the front door, and he might look a little funny."