They are sites of esoteric practice, where power-suited magicians work spells of high abstraction. In these places, mundane objects are imbued with ‘value’: plastic turns to gold, houses to assets, and rocks to … actually, I’m not sure what happens there. They stand as guardians to these sacred fetishes, and have all sorts of protective charms to prevent the unworthy getting their hands on them. Charms like automated help lines, where it is impossible to get any help, or even talk to a ‘real’ human being. Where and what are these places? Everywhere, and their faces are many. They are the mechanisms and institutions of high finance that govern our lives (second only to cats … probably the cats invented them).
Most of us will only ever have peripheral dealings with the financial-leviathan in its full and terrifying form. And then only if we happen to be working for it, or have somehow tamed it to work for us. But there is one face we have all seen; one so familiar, that when we think about it, it often seems to be the smiling face of a successful entrepreneur (or, perhaps, the face of an ‘average’ and attractive young person). I am speaking of none other than the bank.
The bank, front-line command post for economic infiltration into the everyday-lives of, well, everybody. In the early Twenty-first Century, it is almost impossible to do anything without getting the bank involved, or by obtaining their special issue plastic-turned-gold. Indeed, it is even very difficult to file for bankruptcy without having a bank-account. For how can one be bankrupt, if one is not also the possessor of an account from which to be rup-ted? Even the language of banking has made it into quotidian speech. We can, for instance, be in sleep deficit, balance the books of our life, accrue interest on a good deed, and lend someone a hand.
To a certain extent, the borrowing of language works in the opposite direction, too: from the natural world into the unnatural one of banking. It is for this reason that banks can grow a customer base, freeze accounts, and open a branch. The free interplay of tropes from these two realms, while not generally a source of confusion, can breed a certain amount of ambiguity. At least in some contexts, and on special occasions; as was the case for Farther Downward and Esmeralda Mustnot.
At the time of their “great confusion” – as they later referred to it in court – Downward and Mustnot were employees of a newly minted banking institution: Macro Finance International. Macro Finance had already made some headway into more traditional territories, like those of the great Pan-American and European Metropolises. The success in such places was due, no doubt, to their innovative organizational model. Taking the Salvation Army as their inspiration, Macro Finance had decided to structure itself according to a military hierarchy. The key difference, was that where the Salvation Army’s goal is to wage a war to save souls, Macro Finance intended wage one to save money (although, to this day, nobody is really sure what that they are saving it from).
At the top of the Macro Finance rank structure sits the President-General, with all and sundry Colonels, Captains, and Sergeants underneath. At the bottom, the lowest and most numerous rank, are the Foot Soldiers. Their job it is to do everything that those above really don’t want to do themselves, or that they simply just can’t be bothered with. For example, a Foot Soldier would be responsible for making sure that the automated help line stays automated, and, on those occasions when someone does get through, would to be the ‘real’ person at the other end of the phone. This was the rank held by both Downward and Mustnot on the day they were told of Macro Finance’s plans to cultivate new branches in previously ‘uncharted’ territories.
On that day, a little after lunch, Downward and Mustnot were visited by their Division’s Clerk-Corporal, who informed them that Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel Stonechest wished to see them in his office. Upon their arrival, Stonechest offered them both an orange, mango, and banana detox tea, invited them to sit, and began his briefing.
“How’s your tea, Mustnot?”
“Ummm … delicious, sir?”
“And you, Downward, how do you find this tea?”
“It’s, ah, very tasty, sir. Very … hmmm? … Detoxifying.”
“Good, good. Can’t stand it myself. It was a present from my great-aunt. Lovely woman, very health conscious, she’s always giving me stuff like that. I don’t have the heart to tell her I don’t like it. Now, you’re both probably wondering why I called you here?”
“I assumed it was about our performance review,” Downward replied,” or perhaps something to do with the upcoming promotion round.”
“Bless you Downward, I do like a man who pays attention to the corporate calendar, but no, that’s not why you’re here.”
There was an awkward pause while Downward and Mustnot waited for their superior to tell them why they were, in fact, there. When it became evident that no explanation was going to be immediately forthcoming, Mustnot offered an alternative hypothesis, just to move things along.
“I’ve heard talk about expanding our interests into new territories” she said. “My best guess is that it has something to do with that, sir.”
“By the gods Mustnot, but you are a sharp mind. Sharp as the piece of paper that cut my thumb this morning; yes, that is why I have called you both here.” Stonechest rose from his seat, and strode over to a large topographical map pinned to the wall behind his desk. “As you are no doubt aware, we have had a very good quarter. We have saved millions of helpless monies from those that would seek to do them ill. As you can see on this map, we have secured very lucrative positions here, here, and here. This bit here is a still a little dicey, but I’m sure we’ll get there in the end.”
Each “here” had been punctuated by a “slap” from a collapsible swagger-stick that Stonechest had pulled from his coat’s inside pocket. The “dicey bit” had been indicated with a counter-clockwise movement of its general area on the map with that same stick, which he had then collapsed again, and put deftly back inside his pocket. He then took a more serious tone, one more serious than the tone he had already been using.
“As you have correctly guessed, Mustnot, the ‘higher-ups’ believe that it is time for us to open new ‘theaters-of-concern’. They feel, quite rightly, that there is much to be gained by opening branches in previously uncharted territories. Not literally uncharted, as there would be no point to that, but largely uncharted by our fine institution.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m a little unclear as to what you mean by ‘not literally uncharted’.”
“Really, Downward? Do try to keep up, it’s not that difficult: I mean they have been ‘literally charted on maps’, but are not charted by us.”
“Look here, Downward,” Stonechest huffed, with unconcealed annoyance, “this is a ‘literally charted’ map, one that is simultaneously uncharted by Macro Finance.” Stonechest produced a small device from another coat pocket, clicked one of its buttons, and a new map slid officiously down from the ceiling. “This map,” [Slap], the swagger-stick was out again, “is one of a fully-explored, therefore charted, river system. All of these,” [Slap, Slap, Slap, Slap], “are townships and communities of people that live along this system. What do you notice about this map?”
“There seems to be a lot of trees in it, sir?”
“What class Foot Soldier are you Downward?”
“First Class, sir.”
“That seems rather unlikely. Mustnot, what do you make of this map, the one your colleague apparently has troubles with?”
Mustnot rose respectfully, gestured with her right hand to the map in question, and asked, “may I take the liberty, sir?”
“By all means, liberty away.”
“I say Mustnot, what is that contraption?”
“It’s a spring-loaded pointing stick, sir. It’s called ‘the switchblade’.”
“It’s very nice. Does it come in a swagger-stick model?”
“I expect so.”
“Huh? Wonder why I’ve never seen one before? Well, please continue.”
[Tap, Tap, Tap, Tap] “These are all areas where our competitors have set up ‘beach-head’ branches, probably as a prelude to secure all these…” [Tap, Tap, Tap, TapTapTap, Tap, Tap] “…unsecured regions in the system.”
“And what brings you to this conclusion?”
[Counter-clockwise movement] “These areas all have the ‘hostile competitor skull’ icon in them, while these others have no icons at all. I submit that the areas where there are no icons, or more specifically, an absence of ‘the compassionate angel’ icon used by Macro Finance, are what you mean by ‘uncharted’ … sir.”
“You really are very clever Mustnot. Have you considered transferring to F.I.37? I really think that Finance-Intelligence-Major Creepteeth could use a woman of your abilities.”
“Thank you Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel.”
Stonechest re-seated himself in his chair, leaned forward, and clasped his hands together underneath his chin. “This brings us, no thanks to Downward, to the purpose of our meeting. I have been tasked, by the Vice-Sub-President-Brigadier’s office, with charting…” a sharp look in the direction of Foot Soldier, First Class, Downward, “…areas such as the one represented on this map. As you can see, there are large tracts of this river system where the local currency is in deep fiscal peril. There are many regions like this, a situation that we can not let continue. I have been, over the last week, assembling two person teams to start rectifying this very dangerous situation. Each team has been given their own ‘region-of-concern’, the one on this map – so adeptly interpreted by Mustnot, here – has been assigned to the two of you.”
The Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel fell silent, placed both his hands palm-down on his desk, and gave his subordinates a look that said that they should really understand how perilous and urgent the matter was. He often did this with his underlings, he’d found it a useful method to reinforce the point that, as the man behind the ‘big desk’, every word he said was law, and he could bring conversations to a halt whenever he felt like it. It was also a useful way to take stock of them, and gauge their relative competence. Mustnot, he noted, was quietly nodding in somber understanding. Downward, however, seemed to be sweating in nervous confusion. Stonechest really must take a closer look at that man’s file; it’s hard to know how someone like that could end up under his command. Probably he was the nephew of someone important.
“Your mission,” Stonechest began again, after he felt enough time had passed to reinforce his authority, “is one of reconnaissance. There are two mission objectives, the first being to ascertain where we should set up our first ‘beach-head’ branch, the second is to gain enough intel so a plan of expansion can be drawn up. Remember, the lives of many valuable commodities and unsecured coinage are at stake. Well, I think that about covers it, so, explore that, will you.”
“Tell me, who is your uncle Downward?”
“Mail-Room-Commandant Downward, sir.”
“I thought as much. Look, if you have any questions, you should direct them to Foot Soldier Mustnot; she seems to have a good grasp of things. That will be all.”
On the way back to their shared cubicle – with all his attempts to resolve the issue of what exactly it was that they are supposed to do bearing no fruit – Downward eventually asked his more accomplished counterpart if she had any idea. “Ez, do you know what he meant by explore that, will you? It’s just, for the life of me, I have no idea, or at least my ideas don’t seem reasonable.”
Mustnot looked at her colleague with compassion. It wasn’t so much that he was incompetent, it was more that he was a highly anxious individual. In her experience, this meant he spent rather more time being worried about things, than paying attention to them. His situation was not helped by the fact that he lived constantly under the shadow of his uncle. On more than one occasion, she had seen him treated with disdain by his Foot Soldier compatriots, and outright disgust by those of the officer class. “I think so,” she said kindly, “I believe that he wants us to mount an expedition to explore that river system.”
“But I don’t know anything about mounting an expedition,” Downward objected. “It took me ages just to figure out which buses to catch to get to work.”
Esmeralda Mustnot chuckled at this. “Don’t worry Far, I don’t know anything about it either. We’ll hire someone local that does. You can relax, I’ll take care of it.”
“Oh good,” said Farther Downward, looking relieved, “that does put my mind rest. Thanks Ez, you’re a real trooper.”
The man Esmeralda found, the local expertise who did know about organizing and running an expedition, was a grizzled old river boat master by the name of Captain George Grimtoes. Grimtoes had been on the river, and adjacent tributaries, his whole life. At least, all the parts of his life he felt counted as being alive. As a young man, he had crewed on the boat that had brought the first settlers to the area, and – before he had made Captain – had also worked variously as an engineer, cargo supervisor, galley chef, and First Officer on many boats that had brought in other things. He knew almost every part of the river: where every sandbar shifted to, every place that the river dolphins liked to wait in ambush, and all of the best black market locations where one could secure reasonably priced botanical distillations. He was even good friends with some of the more ‘understanding’ crocodiles, with whom he had spent many a night in boozy revelry.
But times had been tough of late. Tourist activity had been on the rise, and old tubs like his – ones without glass bottoms and life-jackets – were not doing as well as they used to. He had, in recent times, been thinking of retiring to a far corner of the river, and hanging up his Captain’s hat and coat for good. (For George was a riverman of the old school. Real boat captains wore hats and coats with gold braid on them; not that polo-shirt nonsense so popular these days.) Yes, times were very tough indeed, which is why, when the young woman that was now standing in front of him with her anxious looking associate, had called with a hire, he had jumped at the chance. Not just because he needed the work, but also because it was being bank funded. In his experience, if you got an opportunity to get something out of a bank, rather than just continually putting things in, you should seize it.
“I think you’ll find our Dolphin’s Revenge a suitable vessel for your purposes,” he was saying to the two tropical-suited clients standing in front of him. “She’s old, but there aren’t many places on this river that she can’t get to. The crew can be a bit salty, as fresh water crew’s can, but you’ll warm to them in time. Allow me to introduce you to my First Officer, Woofington O’Barkerty; he does most of the heavy lifting as regards the boat’s organization and smooth running. You have any problems, you go see him.”
“Woofington?” queried Farther Downward, poorly applied sun-block running in milky-colored streams down his face. “That’s an interesting name. Family name, is it?”
“Yes, I believe his mother was a member of the peerage; Lady Madonna da Silva-Walnut, I think her name was.”
“Excuse me, Captain?” Esmeralda Mustnot politely interrupted, “but do you happen to have an internet connection here? Only I should really see if I have any messages from head office.”
“Why yes, as it happens, we do have a sort of internet connection here. It’s an old dial-up, but it works okay for things like email.”
“Really? But don’t you need to have a landline for that?”
“That’s true,” the Captain replied, “and so we only have internet access when we’re in a port with a phone handy. Fortunately, this being one of those, I have the cable plugged into the public phone on the dock there.”
“Oh, so you do,” observed Esmeralda, doubtfully. It had been a long time since she had seen this kind of Bronze Age communication technology. “And where might I find…” she searched for the right archaic expression, “…the ‘internet-interface-device’?”
“You man the laptop? It’s in the galley on the next deck down, through the hatchway marked ‘kitchen’.”
Esmeralda thanked the Captain, and started her hunt for the ‘kitchen’. As she was leaving she could hear that Farther had started up the conversation about Grimtoes’ First Officer again.
“And what kind of dog is he?”
“A Dashbrador; that’s a cross between a Dachshund and a Labrador.”
“How is that even possible?”
“With great agility on the part of the father, I am told…”
Having located the ‘kitchen’, and having waited through the requisite screeches and snail-like loading times that accompany the use of outdated technology, Esmeralda was pleased to note that she did have a message from head office. That is, she was pleased right up to the point where the blood started to drain from her face:
To Foot Soldiers (First Class) Mustnot and Downward.
It has come to our attention that you have accessed a large amount of funds from Acquisitions account 668-89-B to conduct an unauthorized expedition to ‘Potential-Theater-of-Concern’ 1121-COBRA-Z-TRIPLE-8. Please be advised that no such expedition was approved by Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel Stonechest, who filed the appropriate paperwork authorizing level 6 internet database searches only.
You are hereby directed and required to cease all exploration activity immediately, and return to head office to face an Audit-Court-Marshal.
Funds-Misappropriation-Captain Slitherly, Division of Financial Affairs.
This was not good news, and, as she wandered back to rejoin the others on deck, she wondered how she could have been so mistaken about what they were supposed to do. It just didn’t seem possible that she could have made such an error. Not her, not Esmeralda Mustnot, top of her class at the academy. The woman who had refused an officer’s commission, so she could start at the bottom, and break all those glass-ceilings on her way to the top. She was so preoccupied with these thoughts, that she didn’t even notice that Captain Grimtoes and Farther were still talking about the Captain’s First Officer.
“…does he always smell like that, I mean it is quite swampy, isn’t it?”
“Not all the time, mostly only after he’s eaten and is relaxing. It’s how he shows appreciation for the meal, you see. That, and how he lets me know his digestion is working properly. It’s saved us a lot of money on trips to the vet.”
“Ah, well the saving of money is something that I can under–. Ez, are you alright? You look very green. It’s probably the heat; it’s positively fierce.”
“Ummm?” Esmeralda said, for the first time in as long as she could remember, not having a good answer to a question. “I think we are going to need a lawyer. Captain, you don’t happen to know any good ones do you?”
The Captain scratched his white, sun-bleached beard thoughtfully. “I do as it happens, but he’s a long ways up the river. Won’t be any internet there. Not even any way to get there, except by boat. It’s very isolated. But I could take you there if you would like? I’ve been meaning to get up that way anyway, being as it has a really good black market with very fine botanical distillations.”
“That sounds perfect,” responded Esmeralda, a plan already forming in her mind. “Let’s make that happen shall we, Captain.”