Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Rough Guide to Skyrim, Pt. II: The Things They Carried

Earlier this week I discussed how The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim feels like a game about travel. Since then, I've explored and played a bit more, and I've learned a few new things.

First, though, check out this site and the absolutely, mouth-wateringly gorgeous shots they've published of the game running on bumped-up, top-shelf PC settings (I have the bog-standard Xbox 360 version).

Dead End Thrills: Skyrim++

Here be dragons. Lovely, lovely dragons.
Done yet? Ok, pick your jaw up off the floor and let's press on forwards. At this point, I've explored a bit more of Skyrim's forty square miles. It's important to know that Skyrim does contain a bit of the Coastline Paradox - the scope of the map is greatly increased by its wrinkliness. As any hiker knows, 10 miles over rough terrain is a lot more than 10 miles across a flat plain.

So, like any good traveler, I've picked up a lot of souvenirs. They range from the mundane (soup, cheese, butterfly wings) to the wildly exotic (fragments of ancient cursed amulets, dragon scales). One of the most engrossing bits of Skyrim is actually manual labour, though.

Dotted across the landscape are mines that you can delve into - some are filled with wights and bandits, while others are functioning bits of the local economies. You can dip into these at any time and mine ore away to your heart's content (OK, well, 'Press A to Mine' sort of thing).  Different mines hold different ores, from iron to quicksilver to exotic materials like 'moonstone' and malachite. Carry these ores back to a smith's facilities, and you can smelt and forge them into ingots and then actual weapons and armor.

Baking a tasty mammoth steak.
It's all pretty abstracted - you just select what you're making from a menu and the game spits out the finished product based on your skill numbers - but it's enough to create a sense of ownership around the goods. Then comes the good bit ... enchantments.

Any RPG player worth his or her salt (something you can also find in the game) knows that enchanted items are always best(unless they're cursed and steal your soul). Skyrim offers plenty of these, but it also gives you the ability to smash and dissect any magical item you like, learning its secrets in the process. Once learned, you can imbue any item you like with a selection of these learned enchantments, as long as you have a soulstone with a trapped soul inside.

This all ties perfectly with Skyrim's tourism-encouraging ways. You can and will fight and defeat an undead king in a forgotten ruin, trap his soul in a gem, steal his flaming sword and use its secrets to give the Elvish bow you crafted with your own hands arcane powers. It's a relatively subtle touch compared to fire-breathing dragons, and none of it is too complicated (Press A), but it creates a sense of ownership and history with your gear. In addition, you get to name your own enchanted items, which lets your imagination run wild - right now, my Breton archer-mage is rocking the bow Death's Arc, the Elvish armor Cloak of Shadows, the Helm of Thought and a bunch of other custom-made gear.

Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian...WIZARD THOU SHALT NOT PASS...Sir Ian
It's the fantasy RPG equivalent of a bespoke Savile Row suit...and it's awesome.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood: A Rough Guide to Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game about travel. At first glance it might appear to be a game about claiming your mytho-genetic heritage, or slaying dragons, or playing errand boy to a staggeringly diverse range of characters who can't be bothered to shift themselves 50 feet from the pub to drop off a satchel of supplies.

There's a strong argument to be made that Skyrim is really about progression: about using and reusing your skills, from cooking to conjuring, until you become a Michelin-star worthy sorcerer-chef who wields fireballs and cookpots with equal dexterity. Indeed, you'll spend a lot of time in Skyrim - most of it, I'd wager - leveling up your character, chopping up bandits and skeletons and packs of walruses (yes, really), and then dutifully returning to town with your spoils. These might take the form of battered and rusted helms, great slabs of meat and ivory or enchanted staves and dragon scales.

A game about traveling...without Goretex.
 All very true.

More than anything, though, what you'll find yourself doing is traveling. All those dungeons, hunting grounds and markets are separated by one of the most vast, changeable and treacherous environments ever created for a videogame.

Skyrim is just the latest in the Elder Scrolls series of games. These have always taken openness and player choice within a vast landscape as their core design directives. In fact, the worlds of the latter three games - Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim - are exponentially smaller than those of the early Daggerfall game, which boasted 487,000 (procedurally-generated) kilometers of terrain with 3/4 of a million characters and 15,000 locations.
Sure, it's ugly...but there's a lot of it.
Skyrim, by contrast, boasts just 41 square kilometers of terrain. But what a terrain it is...
We'll no longer burn to be brothers in arms.
Loping through these fog-shrouded forests and clambering over the rocky cliffs, I was tempted to play Dire Straits Brothers in Arms (these mist-covered mountains...) but the dynamic music that cues changing weather, nightfall, the presence of enemies and the passage of time remained too engrossing.

This is becoming a sloppy paen to the merits of Skyrim's world, but there's a decent reason for that. It's a deeply flawed piece in a few key ways, but it's one of a small handful of games that actually caused me to stop, gasp and stare at...nothing. Well, not nothing, but something that wasn't a pre-rendered action sequence or bad-ass triple kill.

In this particular case, I emerged from the ruins of an ancient temple, having battled a handful of bandits, a few reanimated corpses, an ancient, axe-wielding lich king and some highly unpleasant spiders. I'd learned a new epic Shout (a kind of primeval draconic magic spell) and found myself laden down with goods for sale. When I stepped out of the cave (waiting the requisite 15-30 seconds for the game to re-render the world (you can walk from coast to coast without a single pause but for some reason, the smallest hovel requires a loading screen)) and stopped dead. I actually called my wife over to see the screen.

Night had fallen on the alpine mountainside that I stood on, along with a light dusting of snow. The pine trees creaked in an eerie wind, lit by a massive, pale moon. From horizon to horizon, an aurora (may as well call it the Aurora Borealis) blazed across the starry sky, in sheets of curving, shifting color.

Look upon Bethesda's works, Sir Edmund Hilary, and despair.
 I knew that computers can easily render an aurora (there's even a screensaver). I also knew I was staring at a cheap virtual representation of a real-world wonder. But in that exact moment of gaming, I recalled why I love the damn things so much. At their best, they transport us to another world and suck us in so deeply we dream of them.

As worlds go, Skyrim is one of the very finest.

One more anecdote. Last night, I set out (on the advice of several townsfolk and a sneering castle mage) to find the magical College of Winterhold, set in the far, far north of this icy land. I'd only explored a small area around the central province, but I set off north, following the stony road.

Moments before a dragon landed on her head.
Immediately, I encountered an obstacle. While hunting an elk that wandered across my path, I stumbled into a nest of bandits working an old mine. My compatriot (a temperamental warrior-maid who consented to follow me after a brief bar brawl) and I made short work of the compound's guards, but in the depths of the mine she fell in battle while I barely held on to my life.

Though I regretted her fall, as she'd helped me slay my first dragon, I gathered up as much iron and treasure as I could and immediately hiked back to Whiterun to sell and buy supplies. Because there was too much to carry, I was forced to make a second trip to the mine...where I was immediately set upon by a wandering dragon. Again I had to retreat after mounting a brief and futile defence. Forced back down the hills in the dark of night, my archer-mage dodged blasts of ice and cast spells over her shoulder. Luring the beast towards the city guards, I turned and fought, slaying that dragon too and retiring afterwards to rest until (virtual) morning.

Pro-tip - you will never, ever, ever catch that deer.
Slightly richer but worse for the wear, I set out again for Winterhold (on a regular day's commute, the greatest setback is usually forgetting my keys). I made it further this time, before another ill-advised chase after wild deer put me off the trail. Trying to get my bearings, I hiked to the top of the highest mountain I could find, where I came across a stony shrine to some unnamed, long-dead Nord warrior, ringed about with valuable artifacts and golden offerings. 

Well, a little grave-robbing never hurt anyone...

I got away with that, then took my bearings from the peak and set off for the nearest city. The trip down the mountain was relatively uneventful - which is to say, I discovered an ancient locked cliffside temple, killed a pack of wolves, fought and defeated some kind of archaeologist-bandit and read her notes for later investigation, and got ambushed by a pack of horrible, venom-spitting spiders.

When I finally arrived at the city I'd set out for, I found that it wasn't Winterhold, but Dawnstar, another Northern city with a small port and an active mine. There's plenty to do in Dawnstar, but the journey was taking longer than expected, so after some quick trading and a night's sleep, I set off north and east. 

Following the shoreline, my aspiring mage was once again sidetracked. First I had to fight off a pack of Ice Wolves, bigger and nastier than their southern cousins.

I also had to detour around some giants, who didn't attack immediately but looked more than a match for me with their giant clubs and herds of mammoths.

Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear.
When I made it past the wolves and the giants, I saw a vast temple rising out of the ice on the very northern shore of the content. This, I thought, must surely be the College of Winterhold (Skyrim has a map but its sense of distances is, as befits a faux-medieval parchment, somewhat distorted).

I made my way across the ice floes only to find another wind-wracked ruin. I'd gone too far north, and had to follow the rocky cliffs, hopping between ice, sea and little outcroppings of beach. I was nearly back onto a road before a pack of slow-moving but nasty walruses lumbered up on me, forcing me to spend two dozen arrows against their leathery hides.

The map told me I was close, but I wasn't sure how to get to Winterhold. A guiding enchantment took me along the rugged coast, looking for a way up the sheer cliffs. A blizzard blew in, obscuring the sky in great sheets of white snow. 

When I finally saw the damn place, Skyrim stunned me all over again. A massive castle perched on a spindly rock spire, with a filament-like bridge arcing between the mainland and the College. It was literally hundreds of feet above me, partially obscured by snow. As it turned out, I had to hike around the rest of the point, climb another mountain and follow another road to reach the town - and I won't spoil what happens next.

What I realized then is that I'd raided a mine, fought a dragon, hunted elk and wolves, battled giant spiders, mined, traded, cooked, slept and smithed across perhaps 10 miles of virtual terrain - and I hadn't even done it for a game-assigned quest. I was quite literally just trying to get from point A to point B, a journey that took my character across one small sliver of the country's north-eastern quadrant.

In spirit, Skyrim is perhaps most similar to Rockstar's last open-world opus, Red Dead Redemption.

Literally the saddest thing in RDR: the first time your horse died.
 That game, too, won many of its best moments not through heavy scripting or fetch quests or canned dialogue, but through the sense of wonder inspired by the scale and richness of its game world. Yes, you do eventually realize you're walking through a series of random-yet-not encounters, whether it's a pack of wolves hunting a deer or an assassin's ambush. But if the world feels right enough, and the ambience is polished enough, you don't really care. 

Getting places isn't really an adventure for most of us in the video-game-playing first world anymore. The triumph of Skyrim is that it makes you feel brave and adventurous and skilled...just for walking around.

I'm a rolling stone...
More later.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#Occupy - Capitalism, Marketing and The Onion

Nation Waiting for Protesters to Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them

With a single headline, the Onion defined and undercut 99 percent of the media's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. That's not unusual - in the modern era, the Onion's satirical bent lets it tell the truth more effectively than most major news organizations which are constrained by the limits of covering 'both sides' of a story and regurgitating massive waves of corporate and political propaganda. By bending the actual truth, the Onion can cut through the bullshit.

It's not that there aren't smart, well-reasoned, intelligent and incisive pieces out there about the Occupy movement - they can be found anywhere from The New York Times to the Awl to the Occupy Boston Globe and other impromptu publications covered by David Carr in the Times. But a couple of regular drumbeats emerge from the mass media. Where are the demands, they ask. Where is the concrete political platform? Who will you vote for? Whose side are you on?

The Onion didn't answer those questions, but it did explain why they're being asked.

Why such urgency, however? Why is it so important that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, Occupy DC, Occupy Chicago and the rest of the 120+ encampments around the nation produce policy proposals?

Right now, the Occupy movement doesn't fit into established or institutional narratives in many ways. Its leaderlessness is one reason . Not only is it difficult to pin a certain person - a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mao, a Sarah Palin - to its head, it's also just practically difficult for a reporter. If everyone's voice is equally weighted than, logically, a good reporter has to talk to everyone to get the full story - which isn't possible even for an extended feature, let alone a deadline for the City desk or the 10:00 p.m. news.

More importantly, the movement doesn't fit into the structure of capitalism. That seems like a broad statement, so let's nail it down piece by piece. Though the spread of the movement has lead to a rapidly diversifying set of priorities, demands and agendas, from raising capital gains taxes to decolonizing the United States, it retains a few core principles everywhere: Occupy Wall Street (i.e. the financial sector's) turf. Return wealth, land, prosperity and hope to the "99 percent majority." Give everyone a chance.

Capitalism, at its, heart, is about the accumulation of capital. Karl Marx very effectively defined it on its own terms in Das Kapital: "M–C–M'[buying in order to sell dearer] is the general formula of capital as it appears prima facie within the sphere of circulation."

That is to say, the capitalist advances money (M) to purchase a commodity (C, which can be a physical good, a service, labor...anything) in order to sell it again for more money (M'). You can even be more efficient, like a banker or a financier, and employ the nigh-magical power of interest: M-M'. Capital increasing itself.

Only the most lunatic capitalist would attempt to deny this simple truth. Where, then, is the contradiction with the Occupy movement?

First, off, there's no reason for the ardent capitalist to return anything to the 99 percent, other than to keep them from storming his property. That's M'-M - why would any capitalist reduce his capital? It makes no sense.

The immediate objection might be that, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, "We are all capitalists now." But we aren't, really. Nearly everyone you meet in life is working to make a living, which means exchanging labor (a commodity) for money (capital) in order to buy various other commodities (shelter, food, iPods, stuff from Anthropologie). We might invest in some small way or have a 401(k) or a pension plan somewhere, but that largely exists so that we can just buy more commodities once we are no longer willing or able to work.

In addition, a pretty fair proportion of the people at Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere either have no capital, by virtue of being unemployed and/or homeless, or have negative capital thanks to massive student debt, mortgages and medical bills.

That raises the second point - the Occupy movement generally wants to reform, reduce or forgive the modern structure of debt. Finance is in large part built on debt, and it consumes an ever-larger proportion of both the national and the global economy. Can anyone actually imagine an administration - any administration - or a Congress telling the banks that all mortgage or student or credit card debt is forgiven? The idea is outlandish - which is exactly why they could dismiss the Occupy movement if it rallied around it as a single concept.

This doesn't mean the Occupations are necessarily hostile to markets, a concept all to often conflated with capitalism. Markets predate capitalism by a huge margin, exist independently of it in the modern world and will probably outlast its collapse (assuming we aren't dragged into a nuclear hellfire). Though donations and freely exchanged skills and labor maintain most of the Occupations' needs at the moment, every member is necessarily a participant in and beneficiary of various markets, from food to cell phone service.

The contradiction is really between the demands of the Occupations - redistribute, forgive, make things fair - and the underlying logic of capitalism which is simply to accumulate. The capitalist will reply that the rising tide lifts all boats and that even as the 1 percent accumulate vast riches, the poor and middle-class have as well. That line might have worked more effectively before 2008, but the global economic crisis since then belies the truth.

As long as the Occupy movement emphasizes its processes, its democracy, its physical existence in space, it defies demands to take up a defined slot in the hierarchy of capitalism. There are plenty of participants who don't identify this way - many calling for iterative reform, increased taxes, even just a job. I've met people at Occupy Boston who've said they support capitalism.

Capitalism, however, doesn't support them. And it's just waiting for a chance to pigeonhole them so it can proceed to ignore them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Boston - October 10, 2011

Watch Here

You might know Occupy Boston as a minor media frenzy centered on the area around South Station, a nuisance in your daily commute, a quickly growing protest movement or just a Twitter hashtag.

I've spent the last 10 days checking in and out of the occupation in Dewey Square and what I've seen has inspired, confused, worried and challenged me in equal measure. I'm trying to compose more coherent thoughts based on some interviews I've done and pictures I've shot over the last few days, but I have a feeling that a major moment will go down tonight and I wanted to share some of what I've seen and learned.

The Occupy movement is thoroughly egalitarian and democratic - perhaps to a fault - though of a necessity it's guided and shaped to a large degree by those who appear to have experience organizing radical street action. Still, a quick tour of the camp last Tuesday introduced me to a diverse cast of characters, from a local ironworker and union member who told me he put down his tools to come join the protest, to a pair of apparently homeless men who explained that the living conditions in Dewey Square beat what they were typically used to. Students, long-time organizers, bloggers, parents, nurses, communists, socialists, Lyndon LaRouche devotees and Catholic priests mingle amongst the masses of students and other tattooed youth.

People were cagey around me, to be sure - I can't blame them, since I showed up straight from work in a suit and tie looking like a G-Man. At least one guy asked me if I had government affiliations. But with the threat of infiltrators and agents provocateurs ever-present, I don't blame them for an instant.

Now, Occupy Boston is facing its most challenging test. I joined the march from Dewey Square for about an hour today as it looped around Atlantic Avenue, Purchase Street, Winter Street and Downtown Crossing. I had to leave as it turned towards Government Center and the Charlestown Bridge by North Station, where protesters confronted police officers and were ultimately turned back.

After over a week in Dewey Square, however, the size of the occupation grew and became problematic in the confined space for health and safety reasons. Acacia Brewer, a spokesman for the occupation's Media working group, told me last week that they might have to expand on to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a far more developed and built-up park than Dewey Square. However, she expressed concern about what would happen once the occupation made that move.

After the unsuccessful attempt to take the Charlestown Bridge, the march returned to Financial District and the occupation of what's now called the "second site" began. After a week in which everyone I interviewed told me that the police have been "awesome," "helpful" and shouting positive slogans like "We are the 99%" from squad cars, the tone has changed. The Boston Police told the movement that they'd have to move their tents and people out of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, or the police would move in. The Occupation's response can be seen here.
At approximately 18:00 the Boston Police Department informed Occupy Boston that if they did not clear the site by nightfall, they would be forcibly removed. In response, Occupy Boston has issued a renewed call for any and all people to join the occupation as soon as possible. From the beginning, occupiers have worked tirelessly to maintain a positive working relationship with city officials. Today’s threats by the Boston Police Department represent a sudden shift away from that dialogue.
The BPD hadn't moved in by 7, but the occupation's Twitter account and auxiliary sources indicate that the new deadline is midnight and the police will probably move in around then. 

I don't yet know if this will be Boston's Tahrir Square, but I think it stands a good chance of being a seminal moment in the history of Massachusetts direct popular action. If all of the thousands in the two camps are arrested, it will be the largest arrest since a massive 1968 Vietnam War protest, stated Occupy Boston's Twitter.

I can't make a clear political argument about whether or not you should join or support the movement right now, and it's still difficult to articulate a list of policies, demands or goals. However, I think it's damned important that everyone pay attention tonight to see what happens when people confront the police on Boston's land.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Project: Consolidation

It's pretty clear to everyone that I have a bad habit of spamming up the Facebook news feed with all the articles I link; it's just gotten so easy, now that every page in existence has about 50 different Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn sharing tools.

I decided that rather than using those, it would be better to consolidate all the stuff I read or pick up on during the day and share it in one convenient place, so that if you want to read one or two, you can, but I don't occupy your whole bandwidth all the damn time. 

So here it is - Project: Consolidation. I mean, if borrowing, reblogging and copying content works for the Huffington Post, why not me?

- GQ has a pretty prescient article on the decline of innovation in the broader Hollywood industry; we still get Inception, Black Swan and the Social Network, but the vast middle has become a kind of creative wasteland. Yeah, it's a bit harsh on comics and other genres, but overall I think it's really well-written - and hideously depressing.

- Speaking of the Social Network, the Boston Globe has a nauseating account of some horrible new media tool called Klout, which is basically like a popularity score based on your social media presence (The Bieb has a perfect 100 score, shocking...). Sample quote: 

After Valentina Monte accepts a date, the Boston University junior quickly goes online to see how many Twitter followers her suitor has. She checks her own follower count three times a day. When she meets someone who admits to following more people than follow him, she judges. “That means you’re a loser.’’
So when her Klout score hit an impressive 59 out of 100 recently, making it almost as high as Jay Leno’s score of 65, she was ecstatic. “I felt worthy.’’
Wow, I really want to bludgeon someone to death with an iPad now.

- If you hacked your PS3, get offline - the SonyCops are coming for you. (via Ars Technica)

- Bahrain is next up on the Arab Revolution Chain Reaction; Tunisia must be regretting this somewhat, as absolutely no one is paying attention to their struggle now. It seems like the Bahraini police or army is using live ammo on protesters there. I hope Bernie Ecclestone does the right thing and cancels the Bahrain Grand Prix - I'll hate waiting for the start of the F1 season but Sakhir is a boring track anyways and more importantly, it's a way to hit the government where it hurts, right in the pocketbook.

- One gets the feeling that The Onion and The New York Times are starting to switch places as self-parody and paper of record, with the former running this gem and the latter's third most-emailed article being about how some people sleep with their pets.
Let's compare and contrast. The Onion: 
"From now on, people looking for helpful hints on renovating a $4 million Manhattan townhouse won't have to waste time sifting through articles on the crisis of public education," Times executive editor Bill Keller said of the new section, which will be printed in smudge-proof ink so it doesn't soil the soft, pink hands of its readers.
The ACTUAL New York Bloody Times:
Ms. Ruttenberg’s habit of sleeping with pets mirrors that of Paris Hilton, who has slept with a pig — of the four-legged variety — and was once bitten at her home at 3 a.m. by a kinkajou, a tiny raccoon-related creature. Keeping that sort of menagerie may be unusual, but the habit of allowing animals in bed is not. Figures vary, but according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 to 62 percent of the 165 million dogs and cats in this country sleep in bed with humans, with other surveys skewing higher.
Wow. 14 to 62 percent, really? You sure you don't want to be a little less specific there? 

All the news that's fit to print, indeed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt and Tunisia

Is it possible that that Egypt could follow in Tunisia's footsteps? The situation there is getting more chaotic by the day - but it's hard to say how much of it is born out of genuine political rage and how much is more economic...

I wrote up something on it here, but it focuses on the econ aspects of the problem. I have a feeling, though, that this will be another Iran - a lot of coverage and unfounded optimism that ends, as usual, in repression.

What I am pretty sure of is that this will keep happening - food prices are going to go up from here, and poor countries are getting squeezed.
In the wake of Tunisia's sudden, unexpected popular revolution, autocratic regimes across the Arab world are running scared. In Cairo, the U.S.-backed presidency of Hosni Mubarak has perhaps the most to lose.
Yesterday, massive crowds gathered in Cairo's Midan Tahrir, the political and economic heart of the city that's bordered by the Mogamma (the central government building), the Egyptian Museum, the headquarters of the Arab League and the Nile Hilton hotel. 
The motivations behind the January 25 protest, which was partly organized through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, are strikingly similar to those that pushed the Tunisian people to take to the streets. While the catalyzing event for Tunisia came in the form of an impoverished vegetable seller's suicide by self-immolation to protest the regime's injustice, the Egyptians seem to have been motivated by the Tunisians themselves.
Read more, via Daniels Trading.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

NaNoWriMo - Day 6, Part 1

There were a few guests when he walked into the cafe, and Clarissa was hustling behind the counter, brewing shots of espresso. A headphone wire dangled from her ear, music blasting from it, and as Rafael walked into the kitchen he plucked it out. She jumped in surprise.

"Scared the shit out of me, Raf."

He winked. "Sorry, C. No headphones in the front, though."

She nodded, but he could almost feel the eye-roll as he headed into the kitchen. The eternal pile of dishes remained.

Rafael immediately threw himself into the work; there was a backlog from the last few days. Soups to make, meat to cut, stock to grab from the back room. He moved as fast as he could, leaning on the steel counters for support. Something else that needed cleaning. Once he hit a rhythm, he moved smoothly, the work guiding his limbs without thought or concentration. Clarissa was, for once, focused, running back and forth from the kitchen without wasting time. Maybe she realized what a state he was in, or maybe she just wasn't hungover for once. Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant change.

Midway through the lunch rush, they ran out of salt cod. Rafael kicked himself for not stocking more, before he remembered that his usual supplier had been out as well. Such was the of a restauranteur, he reflected; an endless series of fuckups that cascaded down the line until they reached the uncomprehending customer. Red wine was running low too, but he couldn't deputize the underage Clarissa to get it and couldn't risk leaving the place in her hands, either. Reluctantly, he sent a text message asking for help.

The rest of the rush went smoothly, although it was a close thing when his leg almost gave out while carrying a pot of almost-boiling stock. Only quick reflexes sliding it onto the counter saved him from being scalded by it. He had a morbid fear of being burned; as a child, the broad scar on his father's shoulder, sustained putting out an engine fire one night, had always made him feel distinctly noxious.

He poured himself a quick nip of whiskey under Clarissa's disapproving eye to steady his nerves and settle the sick tension that crawled into his stomach whenever he thought about burns. The music had stopped playing, he realized, leaving the guests to speak in hushed tones or risk having their conversations carry through every corner of the cafe. He rummaged through the CDs stacked at haphazard angles under the counter. A disc of capoeira music reggae-inflected and arranged for guitar seemed somehow appropriate for reasons he couldn't quote pin down, so he popped it in, grinning slightly at the bemused looks of a few who had never heard its peculiar rhythms before.

The winding down of the lunch rush left a Tower of Babel made out of dishes in the sink; several in fact, that he and Clarissa tackled as quickly as possible.

“How did the funeral go?” she asked, finally.

He shrugged. “A funeral. What can you expect, you know? Man goes in the ground, people cry, it's a tragedy.”

Clarissa frowned. “Wasn't he your friend?”

He stared at her for a moment, stock-still, hands immersed in the hot, soapy water. “Yeah, he was.” He turned back to the dishes. “Was. Not is.”

“That doesn't seem very healthy, you know...”

“It's not. It's a very unhealthy situation. But what're you gonna do?”

“Me?” She paused, drawing back in confusion. “I don't Do you want to talk about it or something like that?”

He laughed grimly. “No, not you, personally. Just what is one...never mind.”

He withdrew from the kitchen to pick up and run the last of the checks. More and more people using cards these days, even if just for a drink or a cup of espresso. Of course, he was guilty of the same sin. It still annoyed him from the perspective of the owner, but turning down cards or even setting a limit was bad business, now. Too many people had nothing but plastic. It was always the oldtimers, the immigrants, the working men who carried around a bundle of $100s wrapped in a rubber band or, in certain especially stylish cases, an old money clip. There was something reassuring about cash, especially, he thought, the soft, almost sensual feel of well-worn bills. Not to mention how easy it was to spend off of plastic.

By one-thirty in the afternoon, only Jorge remained, scribbling furiously in his notebook. He wrote with remarkably neat, precise script; letters formed as neatly as a schoolgirls flowing out of the pen clutched in his meaty paw. Seeing the cafe empty, and hearing the distinct blast of Clarissa's headphone from the back room, he took his glass sat down beside his last and best customer. Jorge nodded affably.

“My condolences,” he said. For such a large man, he had an oddly soft and almost childlike voice; nevertheless, there was a sharpness in his small eyes that belied a fierce, almost predatory intelligence. They were the only part of him that did not appear to be on the verge of falling asleep at any moment.

Obrigado,” muttered Rafael. He perked up slightly. “No, but thank you. It's been a shitty week.”

“Of course. You knew him very well, didn't you?”

Rafael tilted his head to the side in thought. “Yes, and no. Since high from just before. The summer before.”

“Sounds like you knew him pretty well, then.”

“Sure, yeah. I mean, he was a hard guy to know, in some ways. Mystery wrapped in an enigma. All that. But yeah, I guess I knew him pretty well.”
“I imagine the funeral must have been interesting...”

“Not really, actually.” Rafael paused to think back to the previous day for a moment. “No, not really. It was all over pretty quickly, to be honest. I got a pretty bad feeling from James, though.”

“James...?” Jorge tilted his head at a questioning angle.

“Yeah, the older brother. I guess we've never really seen eye-to-eye. On anything.”

“Any particular reason for that?”

“You know, not that I know of.” Rafael felt the lie acutely. “Well, I mean, the obvious.”

Jorge reached across the table and softly a laid a hand on Rafael's shoulder “Accidents do happen. With surprising frequently, in fact.”

He stiffened and turned away. “Even so. I can understand. I sympathize one-hundred percent with him, to tell you the truth. I'd feel exactly the same way.”

Jorge shrugged his broad shoulders and ran a hand thoughtfully across his patchy beard. “Well, I just happen to think you're being excessively hard on yourself. About the whole thing.”

“Could be. Could be.” Rafael stood and took the last sip from his glass. “Good talking to you, anyways.”

The door opened as he turned back to the bar. Jason stepped in, pausing momentarily as the sunlight poured in around him. For that second, he appeared like some gilt statue of a candomble saint, light glinting off of the silver hairs that streaked his dreadlocks. He dressed, as always, immaculately, in an incongruously professorial style; tweed blazer, complete with leather patches, and high motorcycle-style boots. He held a pair of red wine bottles in each hand.

Bom dia, meu amigo!” he shouted in his best attempt at a Brazilian accent, raising the bottles high.

Boa tarde,” corrected Rafael, tapping his watch to indicate that it was now afternoon.

“Well, at least I try, man.” Jason set the bottles down on the bar and sat down in one of the stools.

“Well, A for effort. Want a drink?”

Jason eyed the glass in Rafael's hand. “As long as you're having one, it'd be rude not to, wouldn't it?”

Rafael laughed. “Sure, yeah. The usual?”

“No, actually. Not really in the mood, to be honest. Just rum, if you got it.”

Rafael raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Of course I've got it. I've got a bunch, actually.”

“From Barbados? Better be Bajan?”

Claro que sim.” He produced a fat bottle made of thick glass and wrapped in wicker, pouring a generous slug of rum over ice. Jason reached out and tossed back half the glass in a single swig.

“Much appreciated, man.” He held the glass up and swirled it around in front of a hanging lamp. “This is good shit, no doubt.”

“Do you think I'd have anything else?”

Jason leaned across the bar and flicked a two-thirds empty bottle of Ron Roberto bottom-shelf rum sitting in the speed rack. “What's this, then?”

Rafael laughed and sat down on the other side of the bar. “Well, I didn't give you that, did I?”

“Most certainly. I'd have to beat your crippled ass for that.”

Rafael took an aspirin and began fixing himself an espresso. “Very fucking funny.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “But seriously, man, how you holding up?”

“Oh great. The bluebirds woke me up today with their beautiful song and then I went to the meadow to pick flowers and just think about how great the world is and how much I fucking love nature. It was like a Disney movie, let me tell you.” He slammed the demitasse down on the bar with excessive force, spilling some espresso. “And then I got here, and guess what I heard? My leg never got broken and Louis was still alive.”

He never saw Jason's hand coming around, just felt the blow on the side of his head that stunned and him and nearly rocked him off of his seat. He shook his head to get the ringing out and rubbed the side of his skull ruefully.

“You gotta stop talking that shit, man.” Jason shook his head. “I know it sucks. But you gotta stand up and look at it straight. Stop getting it twisted.”

Rafael hung his head. “I deserved that.”

“Yeah, you did.” Jason's expression softened. One hand toyed with the gold bar that ran through the top of his ear. “Sorry. I hate to see ya like this, I do. But you gotta straighten it out in your head. Or it's gonna eat you up like the sickness.”

Rafael stirred his coffee listlessly. “Sure, but how? You don't know what it's like...”

“The hell I don't. I know exactly how it is.”

“How's that?”

Jason set both elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Back in Bridgetown, when I was maybe 12, maybe 13, one of my brothers was teaching me how to ride his bike. A little one, one of those 100cc things that just blow smoke everywhere and make a whole racket. So I'm riding up and down de street, just fooling, you know?

“Where's this going, Jay?”

“I'm getting there. So here we are. And there was this girl, lived next door. Most beautiful thing I've ever seen my whole life. Half-lebanese, skin like honey, little sweet braids that smelled like coconut. Always said she wanted to be a swing dancer, like on Dirty Dancing. Used to sneak out the fate when her grandaddy fell asleep and practice dancing on he beach at night. ”

“With you, of course?”

Jason laughed. “I wish. Wasn't as good-looking then as I am now, “ he said with a wink. “Anyways, I was in love like nothing else, brother. You know in that way, when you're just a boy, and there's only one thing in the world you want. So I'm riding and I see Clara. I think, man, this is your chance to impress her. So I pop a wheelie, you know. Trying to show off.”

“And you hit her?”

“Well, some geezer opened the door of his car and hit me. So I spin out, you know. Lose control, head over heels, and bam.” He smacked his fist into his palm. “Bike goes right into her knees. I broke an ankle, she broke both knees. Basically laid up in bed, crippled. Couldn't dance, couldn't barely walk.” He took a long drink. “Fucking tragedy.”

“Man, that's...” Rafael shook his head. “That's pretty bad. Not really your fault, though. I mean, sure, it was stupid, but it was the guy who hit you, really.”

“Yeah. And that's my point. Accidents happen.”

Rafael bit his lip. “I guess. You got a point. Shame about that girl, though.”

Jason smiled slightly. “Well, it turned out alright in the end.” He fished in his pocket for his wallet and pulled a ragged-edged, faded photo from the back. It showed a dancer, lit by spotlights, back arched and leg thrown out in a graceful turn.