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The United States is near total collapse. But 87% of the population doesn’t care: they’re addicted to flashback, a drug that allows its users to re-experience the best moments of their lives. After ex-detective Nick Bottom’s wife died in a car accident, he went under the flash to be with her; he’s lost his job, his teenage son, and his livelihood as a result.
Nick may be a lost soul but he’s still a good cop, so he is hired to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor’s son. This flashback-addict becomes the one man who may be able to change the course of an entire nation turning away from the future to live in the past.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of The Fifth Heart
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Japanese Green Zone Above Denver—Friday, Sept. 10
YOU'RE PROBABLY wondering why I asked you to come here today, Mr. Bottom," said Hiroshi Nakamura.
"No," said Nick. "I know why you brought me here."
Nakamura blinked. "You do?"
"Yeah," said Nick. He thought, Fuck it. In for a penny, in for a pound. Nakamura wants to hire a detective. Show him you're a detective. "You want me to find the person or persons who killed your son, Keigo."
Nakamura blinked again but said nothing. It was as if hearing his son's name spoken aloud had frozen him in place.
The old billionaire did glance to where his squat but massive security chief, Hideki Sato, was leaning against a step-tansu near the open shoji that looked out on the courtyard garden. If Sato gave his employer any response by movement, wink, or facial expression, Nick sure as hell couldn't see it. Come to think of it, he didn't remember having seen Sato blink during the ride up to the main house in the golf cart or during the introductions here in Nakamura's office. The security chief's eyes were obsidian marbles.
Finally Nakamura said, "Your deduction is correct, Mr. Bottom. And, as Sherlock Holmes would say, an elementary deduction since you were the homicide detective in charge of my son's case when I was still in Japan and you and I have never met nor had any other contact."
After the glance in Sato's direction, Nakamura had returned his gaze to the single sheet of interactive e-vellum in his hand, but now his gray eyes looked up and bored into Nick.
"Do you think you can find my son's killer or killers, Mr. Bottom?"
"I'm certain I can," lied Nick. What the old billionaire was really asking him, he knew, was Can you turn back the clock and keep my only son from being killed and make everything all right again?
Nick would have said I'm certain I can to that question as well. He would have said anything he had to say to get the money this man could pay him. Enough money for Nick to return to Dara for years to come. Perhaps a lifetime to come.
Nakamura squinted slightly. Nick knew that one didn't become a hundred-times-over billionaire in Japan, or one of only nine regional Federal Advisors in America, by being a fool.
"What makes you think that you can be successful now, Mr. Bottom, when you failed six years ago, at a time when you were a real homicide detective with the full resources of the Denver Police Department behind you?"
"There were four hundred homicide cases pending then, Mr. Nakamura. We had fifteen homicide detectives working them all, with new cases coming in every day. This time I'll have just this one case to concentrate on and to solve. No distractions."
Nakamura's gray gaze, as unblinking as Sato's darker stare and already chilly, grew noticeably chillier. "Are you saying, former detective sergeant Bottom, that you did not give my son's murder the attention it deserved six years ago, despite the… ah… high profile of it and direction to give it priority from the governor of Colorado and from the president of the United States herself?"
Nick felt the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool cover of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.
"I'm saying that the DPD didn't give any of its murder cases the manpower or attention they deserved six years ago," said Nick. "Including your son's case. Hell, it could have been the president's kid murdered in Denver and the Major Crimes Unit couldn't have solved it then." He looked Nakamura straight in the eye, betting everything on this absurd tactic of honesty.
"Or solve it now," he added. "It's fifty times worse today."
The billionaire's office had not a single chair to sit in, not even one for Mr. Nakamura, and Nick Bottom and Hiroshi Nakamura stood facing each other across the narrow, chest-high expanse of the rich man's slim, perfectly bare mahogany stand-up desk. Sato's casual posture over at the tansu didn't obscure the facts—at least to Nick Bottom's eye—that the security chief was fully alert, would have been dangerous even if he weren't armed, and had the indefinable lethality of an ex-soldier or cop or member of some other profession that had trained him to kill other men.
"It is, of course, your expertise after many years on the Denver Police Department, and your invaluable insights into the investigation, that are the prime reason we are considering you for this investigation," Mr. Nakamura said smoothly.
Nick took a breath. He'd had enough of playing by Nakamura's script.
"No, sir," he said. "Those aren't the reasons you're considering hiring me. If you hire me to investigate your son's murder, it's because I'm the only person still alive who—under flashback—can see every page of the files that were lost in the cyberattack that wiped out the DPD's entire archives five years ago."
Nick thought to himself—And it's also because I'm the only person who can, under the flash, relive every conversation with the witnesses and suspects and other detectives involved. Under flashback, I can reread the Murder Book that was lost with the files.
"If you hire me, Mr. Nakamura," Nick continued aloud, "it will be because I'm the only person in the world who can go back almost six years to see and hear and witness everything again in a murder case that's grown as cold as the bones of your son buried in your family Catholic cemetery in Hiroshima."
Mr. Nakamura drew in a quick, shocked breath and then there was no sound at all in the room. Outside, the tiny waterfall tinkled softly into the tiny pond in the tiny gravel-raked courtyard.
Having played almost all of his cards, Nick shifted his weight, folded his arms, and looked around while he waited.
Advisor Hiroshi Nakamura's office in his private home here in the Japanese Green Zone above Denver, although recently constructed, looked as if it might be a thousand years old. And still in Japan.
The sliding doors and windows were shoji and the heavier ones fusuma and all opened out into a small courtyard with its small but exquisitely formal Japanese garden. In the room, a single opaque shoji window allowed natural light into a tiny altar alcove where bamboo shadows moved over a vase holding cut plants and twigs of the autumn season, the vase itself perfectly positioned on the lacquered floor. The few pieces of furniture in the room were placed to show the Nipponese love of asymmetry and were of wood so dark that each ancient piece seemed to swallow light. The polished cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura's compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent).
And Nick didn't give the slightest shit.
He needed this job to get money. He needed the money to buy more flashback. He needed the flashback to get back to Dara.
Since he'd had to leave his shoes back in the entry genkan where Sato had left his, Nick Bottom's prevalent emotion at the moment was simple regret that he'd grabbed this particular black sock this morning—the one on his left foot with a hole big enough to allow his big toe to poke through. He covertly scrunched his foot up, trying to worm the big toe back in the hole and out of sight, but that took two feet to do right and would be too obvious. Sato was paying attention to the squirming as it was. Nick curled the big toe up as much as he could.
"What kind of vehicle do you drive, Mr. Bottom?" asked Nakamura.
Nick almost laughed. He was ready to be dismissed and physically thrown out by Sato for his gai-jin's impertinent mention of Nakamura's all-hallowed son Keigo's cold bones, but he hadn't expected a question about his car. Besides, Nakamura had almost certainly watched him drive up on one of the fifty thousand or so surveillance cameras that had been tracking him as he approached the compound.
He cleared his throat and said, "Ah… I drive a twenty-year-old GoMotors gelding."
The billionaire turned his head only slightly and barked Japanese syllables at Sato. Without straightening and with the slightest of smiles, the security chief shot back an even deeper and faster cascade of guttural Japanese to his boss. Nakamura nodded, evidently satisfied.
"Is your… ah… gelding a reliable vehicle, Mr. Bottom?"
Nick shook his head.
"The lithium-ion batteries are ancient, Mr. Nakamura, and with the way Bolivia feels about us these days, it doesn't look like they're going to be replaced any time soon. So, after a good twelve-hour charge, the piece of shi… the car… can go about forty miles at thirty-eight miles per hour or thirty-eight miles at forty miles per hour. We'll both just have to hope that there won't be any Bullitt-style high-speed chases in this investigation."
Mr. Nakamura showed no hint of a smile. Or of recognition. Didn't they watch great old movies in Hiroshima?
"We can supply you with a vehicle from the delegation for the duration of your investigation, Mr. Bottom. Perhaps a Lexus or Infiniti sedan."
This time Nick couldn't stop himself from laughing. "One of your hydrogen skateboards? No, sir. That won't work. First of all, it'd just be stripped down to its carbon-fiber shell in any of the places I'll be parking in Denver. Secondly—as your director of security can explain to you—I need a car that blends in just in case I have to tail someone during the investigation. Low profile, we private investigators call it."
Mr. Nakamura made a deep, rumbling sound in his throat as if he were preparing to spit. Nick had heard this noise from Japanese men before when he'd been a cop. It seemed to express surprise and perhaps a little displeasure, although he'd heard it from the Nipponese men even when they were seeing something beautiful, like a garden view, for the first time. It was, Nick thought, probably as untranslatable as so many other things lost between this century's newly eager Nipponese and infinitely weary Americans.
"Very well, then, Mr. Bottom," Nakamura said at last. "Should we choose you for this investigation, you will need a vehicle with a greater range when the investigation takes you to Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico. But we can discuss the details later."
Santa Fe, thought Nick. Aww, God damn it. Not Santa Fe. Anywhere but Santa Fe. Just the name of the town made the deep scar tissue across and inside his belly muscles hurt. But he also heard another voice in his head, a movie voice, one of hundreds that lived there—Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
"All right," Nick said aloud. "We'll discuss the car thing and a Santa Fe trip later. If you hire me."
Nakamura was again looking at the single sheet of e-vellum in his hand.
"And you're currently living in a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall, is that correct, Mr. Bottom?"
Jesus Christ, thought Nick Bottom. With his entire future probably depending upon the outcome of this interview, and with ten thousand questions Mr. Nakamura could have asked him that he could have answered while retaining at least a shred of the few tatters that still remained of his dignity, it had to be You're currently living in a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall?
Yes, sir, Mr. Nakamura, sir, Nick was tempted to say, currently living in one-sixth of a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall in a shitty section of a shitty city in one forty-fourth of the former United States of America, that's me, the former Nick Bottom. While you live up here with the other Japs on top of the mountain, surrounded by three rings of security that fucking Osama bin Laden's fucking ghost couldn't get through.
Nick said, "The Cherry Creek Mall Condos it's called now. I guess the space my cubie's part of used to be a Baby Gap."
Of the three men, two were expensively dressed in the thin-lapelled, sleek-trousered, black-suited, crisp-white-shirted, white-pocket-squared, skinny-black-tied 1960s JFK look retrieved from more than seventy-five years earlier. Even Mr. Nakamura, in his late sixties, wouldn't have been able to remember that historical era, so why, Nick wondered, had the style gurus in Japan brought this style back for the tenth time? The dead-Kennedys style looked good on slim, elegant Mr. Nakamura, and Sato was dressed almost as beautifully as his boss, although his black suit probably cost a thousand or two new bucks less than Nakamura's. But the security chief's suit would have required more tailoring. Nakamura was lean and fit despite his years, while Sato was built like the proverbial brick shithouse, if that phrase even applied to men. And if the Japanese had ever had brick shithouses.
Standing there, feeling the cool air of the breeze from the garden flowing across his curled-up bare big toe and realizing that he was by far the tallest man in the room but also the only one whose posture included his now-habitual slump, Nick wished that he'd at least pressed his shirt. He'd meant to but had never found the time the past week since the call for this interview came. So now he stood there in a wrinkled shirt under a wrinkled, twelve-year-old suit jacket—no matching trousers, just the least rumpled and least stained of his chinos—all of it probably producing a combined effect that made him look as if he'd slept not only in the clothes but on them. Nick had discovered only that morning in his cubie that he'd put on too much weight the last year or two to allow him to button these old trousers, or the suit jacket, or his shirt collar. He hoped that his too-wide-for-style belt might be hiding the opened trouser tops and the knot of his tie might be hiding the unbuttonable shirt collar, but the damned tie itself was three times wider than the ties on the two Japanese men. And it didn't help Nick's self-confidence when he considered that his tie, a gift from Dara, had probably cost one hundredth of what Nakamura had spent on his.
To hell with it. It was Nick's only remaining tie.
Born in the next-to-last decade of the previous century, Nick Bottom was old enough to remember a tune from a child's educational program that had been on TV then, and now the irritating singsong lyrics returned from childhood to rattle through his aching, flashback-hungry head—One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong…
To hell with it, thought Nick again and for a panicked second he was afraid he'd spoken aloud. It was becoming harder and harder for him to focus on anything in this miserable, increasingly unreal non-flashback world.
And then, because Mr. Nakamura seemed very comfortable with the stretching silence and Sato actively amused by it while Nick Bottom wasn't at all comfortable with it, he added, "Of course, it's been quite a few years since the Cherry Creek Mall was a mall or there were any stores there. BIAHTF."
Nick pronounced the old acronym "buy-ought-if" the way everyone did and always had, but Nakamura's expression remained blank or passively challenging or politely curious or perhaps a combination of all three. One thing was certain to Nick: the Nipponese executive wasn't going to make any part of this interview easy.
Sato, who would have spent time on the street here in the States, didn't bother to translate it to his boss.
"Before It All Hit The Fan," Nick explained. He didn't add that the more commonly used "die-ought-if" stood for "Day It All Hit The Fan." He was certain that Nakamura knew both expressions. The man had been in Colorado as a federally appointed four-state Advisor for five months now. And he had undoubtedly heard all the American colloquialisms, even if only from his murdered son, years before.
"Ah," said Mr. Nakamura and again looked down at the sheet of e-vellum in his hand. Images, videos, and columns of text flicked onto the single, paper-flexible page and scrolled or disappeared at the slightest shift of Nakamura's manicured fingertips. Nick noticed that the older man's fingers were blunt and strong, a workingman's hands—although he doubted if Mr. Nakamura had ever used them for any physical labor that wasn't part of some recreation he'd chosen. Yachting perhaps. Or polo. Or mountain climbing. All three of which had been mentioned in Hiroshi Nakamura's gowiki-bio.
"And how long were you a member of the Denver Police Department, Mr. Bottom?" continued Mr. Nakamura. It seemed to Nick that the damned interview was running in reverse.
"I was a detective for nine years," said Nick. "I was on the force for a total of seventeen years." He was tempted to list some of his citations, but resisted. Nakamura had it all on his vellum database.
"A detective in both the Major Crimes Unit and then the Robbery-Homicide division?" read Nakamura, adding the question mark only out of politeness.
"Yes," said Nick while thinking Let's get to it, God damn it.
"And you were dismissed from the detectives' bureau five years ago for reasons of…?" Nakamura had quit reading as if the reasons weren't right there on the page and already well known to the billionaire. The question mark this time came only from Nakamura's politely raised left eyebrow.
Asshole, thought Nick, secretly relieved that they'd finally reached the hard part of the interview. "My wife was killed in an automobile accident five years ago," said Nick with no emotion, knowing that Nakamura and his security chief knew more about his life than he did. "I had some trouble… coping."
Nakamura waited but it was Nick's turn not to make this part of the interview easy. You know why you're going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let's get to it. Yes or no.
Finally Mr. Nakamura said softly, "So your dismissal from the Denver Police Department, after a nine-month probationary period, was for flashback abuse."
"Yes." Nick realized that he was smiling at the two men for the first time.
"And this addiction, Mr. Bottom, was also the reason for the failure of your personal private-detective agency two years after you were… ah… after you left the police force?"
"No," lied Nick. "Not really. It's just a hard time for any small business. The country's in its twenty-third year of our Jobless Recovery, you know."
The old joke didn't seem to register on either of the Japanese men. Sato's easy, leaning stance somehow reminded Nick of Jack Palance as the gunfighter in Shane, despite the total difference in the two men's body form. Eyes never blinking. Waiting. Watching. Hoping that Nick will make his move so Sato–Palance can gun him down. As if Nick might still be armed after the multiple levels of security around this compound, after having his car CMRI'd and left half a mile down the hill, after having the 9mm Glock that he'd brought along—it would have seemed absurd, even to Sato, for him to have been traveling through the city without some weapon—confiscated.
Sato watched with the deadly, totally focused anticipation of a professional bodyguard. Or Jack Palance–in-Shane killer.
Instead of pursuing the flashback question, Mr. Nakamura suddenly said, "Bottom. This is an unusual last name in America, yes?"
"Yes, sir," said Nick, getting used to the almost random jump of questions. "The funny part is that the original family name was English, Badham, but some guy behind a desk at Ellis Island misheard it. Just like the scene where mute little Michael Corleone gets renamed in Godfather Two."
Mr. Nakamura, more and more obviously not an old-movie fan, just gave Nick that perfectly blank and inscrutable Japanese stare again.
Nick sighed audibly. He was getting tired of trying to make conversation. He said flatly, "Bottom's an unusual name, but it's been our name the hundred and fifty years or so my family's been in the States." Even if my son won't use it, he thought.
As if reading Nick's mind, Nakamura said, "Your wife is deceased but I understand you have a sixteen-year-old son, named…" The billionaire hesitated, lowering his gaze to the vellum again so that Nick could see the perfection of the razor-cut salt-and-pepper hair. "Val. Is Val short for something, Mr. Bottom?"
"No," said Nick. "It's just Val. There was an old actor whom my wife and I liked and… anyway, it's just Val. I sent him away to L.A. a few years ago to live with his grandfather—my father-in-law—a retired UCLA professor. Better educational opportunities out there. But Val's fifteen years old, Mr. Nakamura, not…"
Nick stopped. Val's birthday had been on September 2, eight days ago. He'd forgotten it. Nakamura was right; his son was sixteen now. God damn it. He cleared his suddenly constricted throat and continued, "Anyway, yes, correct, I have one child. A son named Val. He lives with his maternal grandfather in Los Angeles."
"And you are still a flashback addict, Mr. Bottom," said Hiroshi Nakamura. This time there was no question mark, either in the billionaire's flat voice or expression.
Here it is.
"No, Mr. Nakamura, I am not," Nick said firmly. "I was. The department had every right to fire me. In the year after Dara was killed, I was a total mess. And, yes, I was still using too much of the drug when my investigations agency went under a year or so after I left the… after I was fired from the force."
Sato lounged. Mr. Nakamura's posture was still rigid and his face remained expressionless as he waited for more.
"But I've beaten the serious addiction part," continued Nick. He raised his hands and spread his fingers. He was determined not to beg (he still had his ace in the hole, the reason they had to hire him) but for some stupid reason it was important to him that they trust him. "Look, Mr. Nakamura, you must know that it's estimated that about eighty-five percent of Americans use flashback these days, but not all of us are addicts the way I was… briefly. A lot of us use the stuff occasionally… recreationally… socially… the way people drink wine here or sake in Japan."
"Are you seriously suggesting, Mr. Bottom, that flashback can be used socially?"
Nick took a breath. The Japanese government had brought back the death penalty for anyone dealing, using, or even possessing flash, for God's sake. They feared it the way the Muslims did. Except that in the New Global Caliphate, conviction of using or possessing flashback by sharia tribunals meant immediate beheading broadcast around the world on one of the twenty-four-hour Al Jazeera channels that televised only such stonings, beheadings, and other Islamic punishments. The channel was busy—and watched—day and night throughout the Caliphate in what was left of the Mideast, Europe, and in American cities with clusters of hajji Caliphate fans. Nick knew that a lot of non-Muslims in Denver watched it for the fun of it. Nick watched on especially bad nights.
"No," Nick said at last. "I'm not saying it's a social drug. I just mean that, used in moderation, flashback isn't more harmful than… say… television."
Nakamura's gray eyes continued to bore.
"So, Mr. Bottom, you are not addicted to flashback the way you were in the years immediately following your wife's tragic death? And if you were hired by me to investigate my son's death, you would not be distracted from the investigation by the need to use the drug recreationally?"
"That's correct, Mr. Nakamura."
"Have you used the drug recently, Mr. Bottom?"
Nick hesitated only a second. "No. Absolutely not. I've had no urge or need to."
Sato reached into his inside suit pocket and removed a cell phone that was a featureless chip of polished ebony smaller than Nick's National Identity and Credit Card. Sato set the phone on the polished surface of the top step of the tansu.
Instantly, five of the dark-wood surfaces in the austere room became display screens. In ultimate HD, but not full 3D, the view was clearer than looking out perfectly transparent windows.
Nick and the two Japanese men were looking at multiple hidden-camera views of a furtive flashback addict sitting in his car on a side street not four miles from here, the images recorded less than forty-five minutes ago.
Oh, God damn it, thought Nick.
The multiple videos began to roll.
Japanese Green Zone Above Denver—Friday, Sept. 10
NICK'S FIRST RESPONSE was professional, a product of his years on Vice and Major Crimes stakeouts—This took five cameras, at least two of them in stealth-daylight MUAVs. Two with very long, stabilized lenses. One handheld impossibly close.
It was him, on the screens, of course. Him in his clapped-out gelding, windows down because the day was already hot in the September morning sun, the vehicle parked under an overhanging tree in a cul-de-sac in an abandoned development of new multimillion-dollar homes less than four miles down the hill from the Japanese Green Zone and about a mile off the Evergreen–Genesis exit from I-70. Nick had taken triple precautions to be sure he hadn't been followed—although why would his prospective employer follow him before the hiring interview? No matter. He liked being paranoid. It had served him well during his years on the force. He'd even gotten out of the gelding and scanned the sky and overgrown shrubs and weeds growing out of the abandoned structures with his old IR, motion-sensor, and stealth-seeking binoculars. Nothing.
Now Nick watched himself settle back in the driver's seat and remove from his rumpled suit coat pocket the only vial of flashback he'd brought along that morning.
He and the two Japanese men continued watching as the Nick on the screens closed his eyes, squeezed the vial and inhaled deeply, tossed the vial out the driver's-side window, and settled back farther into the headrest, his eyes rolling up within seconds as they always did with flashers, his mouth open a bit—just as it was open now.
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