J O R G E C A S U S O
It is sometime in the near future, and a vast digital empire has forged an alternate reality dominated by fake news. Only one major newspaper, The Morning Sun, remains in print, led by a mad editor obsessed with preserving the power of the printed word. For years, he has been secretly recruiting reporters from the newsroom and sending them to an undercover bureau in LA, where they are initiated into The Hidden Hand, an underground army of homeless reporters driven insane by impossible deadlines and a strangely recurring story that allows them to see what is truly real. But time is running out. In just three days, The Morning Sun's final print edition will hit the streets, and the editor's last recruit, a compulsive researcher who missed his only deadline years before, must lead the invisible army in a decisive battle for truth.
THE HIDDEN HAND
Three days before his transformation, Jack Kamen had a dream. In the dream he's drowning. The sea is dark, the night falling, storm clouds gather overhead. A persistent beeping can be heard from the distance, but there is no light and no horizon, only brightly colored numbers bobbing violently in the waves.
He lunges at a black 8, but the number sinks in his grasp. A yellow 3 also sinks. So does a brown 9 and an orange 2. Water fills the black distances that grow between the drifting numerals. His arms grow heavy. A 7 and a 4 sail by, followed by a green 5 and a purple 6. He frantically kicks, gasping, trying to stay afloat.
The beeping grows louder.
A row of 1s approaches and stops, just beyond his reach, the four red numerals--1 1 1 1--bobbing, beckoning, glowing on the water. But it's too late. He begins to go under as a vast emptiness engulfs him.
The drowning man bolts up in bed, gasping. He's back in the room, but the beeping doesn't stop. On an antique digital clock the red 1s are aligned in single file standing at attention, the four thin lines separated by two dots like some ancient code. It's 11:11. Again.
Kamen hits the button on the alarm and the phone starts to ring. He waits for the answering machine to kick in. On the nightstand is the speckled notebook where the night before he had scribbled down the same dream.
“You have reached the voice mail for Jack Kamen. I am unable to take your call at this time. Please leave your name and number and the time and purpose of your call and I will get back to you as soon as practicable. Please be sure to repeat the number slowly to assure accurate transmission.”
There's a click, then a voice whispering through the speaker.
It's Ruby calling from work. Kamen grabs the phone and watches as the final 1 slowly flips to 2.
“Jack. Are you there? What are you doing?”
“It just happened, again,” he says half to himself. “Eleven eleven. It's like a voice calling me.”
“Oh, no. Listen, Jack, it's not a voice. Don't you see, you've programmed yourself to see that number.”
“But I was sleeping, and when I wake up, it's there on the clock, just like in the dream, the same one I keep having.”
“That was probably just a coincidence.”
“And the phone, too, it rang at eleven eleven.”
“Good grief, you don't think I actually timed my call, do you?”
“No, maybe, I guess not.”
“Okay, this is more serious than I thought.”
“And last night, I was sitting there reading and suddenly, out of nowhere, I feel that I have to check the time, right at that moment, and I look and it's exactly eleven eleven.”
“It must have been in your field of vision. You were registering it subconsciously.”
“I had to turn around to see it.”
“Listen, Jack, you've got to get a grip. You're more than two hours late. The news desk is looking for you.”
The editors, Kamen thinks. There must be something wrong with his story. He hangs up and rushes to the bathroom, turns on the shower and jumps in. Through the curtain, he can see Ink, a little blot, standing by the open door, and suddenly, he's talking to the small cat he found a few weeks earlier out in the snow, telling her how he should never have snapped at Ruby, how she was only trying to help, how he’d been acting kind of crazy lately. Like talking to a cat, he thinks and turns the shower off.
What he hasn't told Ruby, or Ink, is that the number 11 has permeated his world, lurking in corners, nudging its way to the center then retreating, but always there, waiting to be found. He began noticing it in places he'd always known, in numbers he had recited or stared at hundreds of times without the pattern ever registering. Like the last four digits of his social security number--7112--or the middle numbers of his company ID--2342--which also added up to 11.
That morning when he left home for the final time, Kamen would look at the clock and note that it was 11:38, the 3 and 8 adding up to the dreaded, magic number. Later, when the coincidences continued piling up, he would convince himself that the time was yet another confirmation that all this, crazy as it seemed, was always meant to happen.
Snow falls between the towering skyscrapers, as a clock tolls twelve in the distance. In the endless grid of tiny windows, corporate workers go about their tasks with precise efficiency, like cells in the compartments of a well-ordered brain. The lunch hour has come but no one is leaving, not on a day like this.
The snow had started falling the previous afternoon and it had continued through the night, accompanied by thunder and lightening and gusts that blew snow drifts against the buildings. Forecasters called it the “Snowcalypse,” and it had paralyzed the City, erasing the sidewalks and streets that would be empty but for a lone figure under a black umbrella racing along the frozen river as a row of bridges slowly opens behind him.
If Kamen hurries, he can still make the final bridge before it lifts. He closes his umbrella, clutches his briefcase and begins to run. Before he can reach the end, a bell clangs and a barrier begins to descend, blocking his path to The Morning Sun, its Gothic tower blurred by the falling snow. He catches his breath and glances across the bridge at a giant clock. It's now 12:03. Kamen is more than three hours late.
He opens his umbrella and checks the news box on the corner, dusting the glass with the back of his glove.
In just three days, the final edition of The Morning Sun will hit the streets, marking the last time a major paper delivers the news in print. Since WEBB's takeover, the newsroom has been preparing, erecting cubicles, replacing editors and reporters whose bylines had appeared in newsstands and doorsteps for years with nameless “audience strategy officers” and “interface facilitators” posting digital content whose sources remained obscure. But now his story could change all that.
After years behind a research desk crunching numbers, Kamen's big chance had finally come. Two months earlier, a low-level copy editor had summoned him for a “classified” assignment. He was to work on the story after hours. No one would know. As usual, the task involved following a complex web of transactions across reams of documents, poring over numbers, calculating sums. Only this time, Kamen, a lowly researcher who had missed his only deadline years before, had been chosen to write the “classified” story that could save the paper. But when he checks, there's no story there, at least not on the front page where it should have run.
The barge finally passes, and the bridge begins its slow descent when Kamen hears a voice, then the crunch of footsteps. From the street below an old man in rags emerges like a gray specter frantically waving a worn speckled notebook in the drifting snow.
“Stop!” he shouts. “You can't run from destiny! Stop!”
Kamen recoils. He can feel the sweat under his ski mask, his socks damp beneath the rubber boots. His heart is pounding, and he's bouncing, punching the crosswalk button over and over again, knowing it won't work, waiting for the barrier to lift. But it's too late.
“Hold it right there, or. . . or. . . I'll shoot.”
Kamen turns, and time stops. His mind continues thinking, only in a strange calm, as if he's slipped outside his body and is watching himself registering the hidden hand moving inside the tattered coat, the other holding a black speckled notebook like the one where he keeps his dreams, the worn sleeves slowly covered by the falling snow.
Time never moved so slowly, nor was anything ever so clear--the matted gray beard, the string of snot clinging to the large red nose, the drooping lips and wild wrinkled eyes nervously staring back.
“Hand over your wallet and you won't get hurt.”
The man tucks the speckled notebook under his arm and wipes his nose with the edge of his sleeve.
Kamen puts his briefcase down and, holding the open umbrella, digs through the overcoat into his back pocket and pulls his wallet out.
A hand wrapped in rags reaches through the snow and snatches it from his hand.
Kaman watches as the soiled fingers open the leather wallet and remove the company ID from the front plastic compartment.
“Look, I need my credentials,” he says, the words forming small clouds in the icy air. “I have eighty dollars, take it, just don’t take my ID.”
“You no longer need it,” the old man says and hands the wallet back.
A loud bell clangs and the barrier begins to rise, time moving quickly again. Kamen pockets his wallet and tries closing the umbrella but it's jammed. He rushes across the bridge steering the black sail buffeted by the wind.
“The stage is set!” the voice behind him shouts. “The plan is completed! The time has come!”
A gust whips the umbrella inside out yanking it from his grasp. Kamen makes a final dash for the tower, as the black umbrella flies away, tumbling, across the white empty street.
In a dim, cavernous room deep in the bowels of the Gothic tower, a chubby Mexican man with thinning hair and large glasses sits hunched behind a wooden counter. Archivist Lupe Mosquera has spent the week combing the classifieds looking for errors he is convinced spell out a secret message.
When he started working in the Morning Sun's newspaper morgue, Lupe was young, and the shelves behind him were filled with papers. There were still copy boys then, and a few copy girls, and they would come to pick up the envelopes stuffed with the stories he had carefully clipped and filed each day by topic and byline. But that was before the internet took over and it became impossible to tell whether stories were fake or true.
Still there is hope. As The Morning Sun prepares to print its final issue, the communications from The Hidden Hand, planted as typos in the classified pages of the paper, have been growing.
Most erors, Lupe knows, are inadvertent--a misplaced comma, a missing letter, a grammatical or typographical glitch undetected by spell-check and missed by a distracted editor. But some mistakes are intentional, like the one Lupe has just spotted on page eleven of the classifieds.
He adds the incorrect letter--an i--to the end of a row that reads GNIMOCSINEM. Mumbling to himself, he divides the letters into syllables looking for plausible words.
GNIM OSCI NEM
GNI MOCSI NEM
He hears footsteps and knows it's Ruby by the clacking of her patent leather shoes. Lupe adjusts his glasses and covers his bald spot with a strand of thinning hair. Ruby dashes up looking sexy and nervous, her dark eyes blazing against her pale skin.
“I think Jack's in trouble,” she says, clutching the large handbag she never leaves behind.
“What, he’s late again?”
“Yeah, and it's all my fault. I should’ve never given him that stupid antique clock.”
Lupe is intrigued. “What about the clock?”
“It's one of those old ones, you know, the ones with the numbers that flip, like a slot machine, and now he says he keeps seeing the same number.”
Lupe's eyes widen behind the glasses. “Eleven eleven.”
Ruby nods, wondering how he could know. “He sees it all the time, and it keeps getting worse. He says it’s like a voice calling him.”
“My uncle had a digital clock, the same kind with the fly wheel and the numbers that flip.”
Lupe removes his glasses, pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and begins wiping the lenses.
“They changed the way we view time, you know, on account of the fact it separates it into distinct compartments. On a digital clock, there's no longer a relation to the time before or after the one displayed on the counter, like there is with the hands on a clock. That's pretty radical when you think about it.”
He inspects his glasses and put them back on.
“According to Uncle Ralph, the old digital clock was the instrument Fulbright used to summon the chosen ones.”
“Look Ruby, I’m sorry, but I’ve said too much already.”
“But I need to know what's going on. You've got to tell me what happened to your uncle.”
Lupe fixes a serious gaze. He feels he can trust Ruby. She's the only one who ever comes down anymore. “Okay. But first, raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Lupe holds the intent stare through the glasses, and Ruby grudgingly raises her hand as he begins a solemn incantation.
“If I betray these sacred secrets.”
Ruby's voice is an awkward echo, “If I betray these sacred secrets.”
“May the ear that heard them be severed from my head, and--”
“What?” Ruby drops her hand.
“Look, if you don't want--”
“Fine.” She throws her hand back up. “May the ear that heard them be cut--”
“Fine, severed from my head.”
“And the lips that betrayed them ripped from my face.”
Rushing, Ruby finishes and drops her hand. “So what about eleven eleven?”
“Uncle Ralph was a typesetter at the paper before computers replaced the old Linotype machines. That was when the presses were still down beneath the building. Anyway, on his twenty-fifth anniversary, his fellow pressmen bought him a flip clock from an old black vendor on Maxwell Street. Shortly after that, he started seeing eleven eleven. He saw it all the time. He was living with my mom and me after my dad left, and he kept pointing it out, but she didn’t take it seriously on account of the fact he was kind of obsessive. Then he disappeared.”
“So he was one of the chosen ones?”
“Highly doubtful. The chosen ones were handpicked by Fulbright from the newsroom.”
“So how come I never heard of this Fulbright?”
Lupe looks down the empty hallway, then pulls a tiny key from his pocket. Ruby watches as he opens a drawer behind the counter and removes a old comic book wrapped in plastic.
“It's issue number fourteen of 'Adventures of The Fly.' Uncle Ralph gave it to me on our last day together.”
Lupe unfastens the tape from the plastic and carefully pulls the comic book out.
“That’s the fly?” Ruby says pointing to the huge black insect with red eyes hovering below the title.
“No, that’s the Flame-Bee from Venus. Its stingers could turn into flaming lances. This,” Lupe says pointing to a masked hero wearing green tights and goggles, “is The Fly.”
“Never heard of him.”
Lupe pulls a small wax envelope tucked between the pages and gingerly extracts a pair of small clippings.
“Uncle Ralph gave me these with the comic book that day. He said they were the only proof of Fulbright's existence.”
He hands Ruby one of the items, which seems to have been clipped from the top of the classifieds just below the date. “Be careful. This is the only existing original.”
The tiny faded typeface makes it difficult to read the words. Ruby unclasps her hand bag. It never fails to amaze Lupe all the things she carries inside--a tape measure, a Swiss army pocket knife, a slingshot, even a rope with a hook at the end. This time she pulls out a magnifying glass and trains it on the words.
On this day, Yates Langston Fulbright II succeeded Yates Langston Fulbright I as publisher emeritus of the Morning Sun.
“Yeah, the Fulbrights passed the title down like royalty. They still claim ownership of The Morning Sun, you know.”
“Come on Lupe, everyone knows Colonel Cooke’s heirs owned the paper before the big takeover. His name’s still all over the building.”
“That’s what they want you to believe. But Fulbright is the rightful owner, always has been.”
“Yeah, fine, so what happened to this Fulbright the Second?”
He hands her the second clipping and Ruby scans it with the glass.
On this day, Yates Langston Fulbright III succeeded Yates Langston Fulbright II as publisher emeritus of the Morning Sun.
Ruby checks the other clipping, then the date. “It's the same thing, only this one ran fifty years later.” She hands the clippings back. “Besides, this is just a classified ad. How do you know this Fulbright character even existed?”
“He still exists.” Lupe carefully places the clippings back in the envelope. “According to Uncle Ralph, every once in a blue moon Fulbright is said to summon a reporter from the newsroom. The thing of it is, no one seems to have ever spoken to any of the chosen ones."
“So what happened to these chosen ones?”
“No one's sure about that either.” He stares at Ruby, concerned. “You see, like Kamen, they were all orphans who kept mostly to themselves, so there were no families or friends to track them down.”
“Are you telling me they just disappeared? Like your uncle?”
“According to Uncle Ralph--”
“Everything is according to your uncle. You've got no proof.”
Lupe points to the envelope. “It's right here. In print.”
“Those are just classified ads, for Chris-sake! Anyone could have taken them out. It's probably just a prank.”
“Fifty years apart?”
Ruby is suddenly unsure. “Maybe. Look, for all you know this Fulbright business is just some story your uncle--”
“This isn't a story. According to the Hidden Hand, which is Fulbright's secret underground operation, the final heir will be the first and the last, the one who will mark the coming of the new millennium, which is just three days away.”
“Good grief. You can't believe that. Besides, the millennium came and went years ago and nothing happened.”
“If you’re talking about the year two-thousand, that was just some arbitrary marker. It only looks definitive on account of the fact the numerals change in all four positions, and there are three zeros at the end, which happens once in a thousand years.”
“Okay, so what’s the point?”
“The point is that according to the Hidden Hand, the true millennium takes place on Saturday, just three days away.”
Lupe stares at Ruby.
“The time,” he says, “has come.”
“Is that according to your uncle, too?”
Ruby is struck by Lupe’s seriousness.
“After seeing eleven eleven, Uncle Ralph became part of Fulbright's invisible army. On the day he disappeared, he gave me this comic book.”
Lupe looks away, his voice breaking. “We never saw him again.”
Somehow, the comic book doesn't look out of place in Lupe's large aging hand, as if he's been leafing through it all these years looking for a clue to his uncle's disappearance.
“You're the only person I've ever told about Uncle Ralph.”
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