Beggars in Spain – Excerpt

Opening Scene of BEGGARS IN SPAIN

ONE

They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn’t want to be here, or one person who didn’t want to and one who resented the other’s reluctance. Dr. Ong had seen this before. Within two minutes he was sure: the woman was the silently furious resister. She would lose. The man would pay for it later, in little ways, for a long time.

“I presume you’ve performed the necessary credit checks already,” Roger Camden said pleasantly, “so let’s get right on to details, shall we, Doctor?”

“Certainly,” Ong said. “Why don’t we start by your telling me all the genetic modifications you’re interested in for the baby.”

The woman shifted suddenly on her chair. She was in her late twenties — clearly a second wife — but already had a faded look, as if keeping up with Roger Camden was wearing her out. Ong could easily believe that. Mrs. Camden’s hair was brown, her eyes were brown, her skin had a brown tinge that might have been pretty if her cheeks had had any color. She wore a brown coat, neither fashionable nor cheap, and shoes that looked vaguely orthopedic. Ong glanced at his records for her name: Elizabeth. He would bet people forgot it often.

Next to her, Roger Camden radiated nervous vitality, a man in late middle age whose bullet-shaped head did not match his careful haircut and Italian-silk business suit. Ong did not need to consult his file to recall anything about Camden. A caricature of the bullet-shaped head had been the leading graphic for yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street journal: Camden had led a major coup in cross-border data-atoll investment. Ong was not sure what cross-border data-atoll investment was.

“A girl,” Elizabeth Camden said. Ong hadn’t expected her to speak first. Her voice was another surprise: upper-class British. “Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender.”

Ong smiled. “Appearance factors are the easiest to achieve, as I’m sure you already know. But all we can do about slenderness is give her a genetic disposition in that direction. How you feed the child will naturally — “

“Yes, yes,” Roger Camden said, “that’s obvious. Now: intelligence. High intelligence. And a sense of daring.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Camden, personality factors are not yet understood well enough to allow genet — “

“Just testing,” Camden said, with a smile that Ong thought was probably supposed to be lighthearted.

Elizabeth Camden said, “Musical ability.”

“Again, Mrs. Camden, a disposition to be musical is all we can guarantee.”

“Good enough,” Camden said. “The full array of corrections for any potential gene-linked health problem, of course.”

“Of course,” Dr. Ong said. Neither client spoke. So far theirs was a fairly modest list, given Camden’s money; most clients had to be argued out of contradictory genetic tendencies, alteration overload, or unrealistic expectations. Ong waited. Tension prickled in the room like heat.

“And,” Camden said, “no need to sleep.”

Elizabeth Camden jerked her head sideways to look out the window.

Ong picked up a paper magnet from his desk. He made his voice pleasant. “May I ask how you learned whether that genetic-modification program exists?”

Camden grinned. “You’re not denying it exists. I give you full credit for that, Doctor.”

Ong held his temper. “May I ask how you learned whether the program exists?”

Camden reached into an inner pocket of his suit. The silk crinkled and pulled; body and suit came from different classes. Camden was, Ong remembered, a Yagaiist, a personal friend of Kenzo Yagai himself. Camden handed Ong hard copy: program specifications.

“Don’t bother hunting down the security leak in your data banks, Doctor. You won’t find it. But if it’s any consolation, neither will anybody else. Now.” He leaned forward suddenly. His tone changed. “I know that you’ve created twenty children who don’t need to sleep at all, that so far nineteen are healthy, intelligent, and psychologically normal. In fact, they’re better than normal; they’re all unusually precocious. The oldest is already four years old and can read in two languages. I know you’re thinking of offering this genetic modification on the open market in a few years. All I want is a chance to buy it for my daughter now. At whatever price you name.”

Ong stood. “I can’t possibly discuss this with you unilaterally, Mr. Camden. Neither the theft of our data — “

“Which wasn’t a theft — your system developed a spontaneous bubble regurgitation into a public gate. You’d have a hell of a time proving otherwise — “

” — nor the offer to purchase this particular genetic modification lie in my sole area of authority. Both have to be discussed with the Institute’s board of directors.”

“By all means, by all means. When can I talk to them, too?”

“You?”

Camden, still seated, looked up at him. It occurred to Ong that there were few men who could look so confident eighteen inches below eye level. “Certainly. I’d like the chance to present my offer to whoever has the actual authority to accept it. That’s only good business.”

“This isn’t solely a business transaction, Mr. Camden.”

“It isn’t solely pure scientific research, either,” Camden retorted. “You’re a for-profit corporation here. With certain tax breaks available only to firms meeting certain fair-practice laws.”

For a minute Ong couldn’t think what Camden meant. “Fair-practice laws …”

“… are designed to protect minorities who are suppliers. I know it hasn’t ever been tested in the case of customers, except for redlining in Y-energy installations. But it could be tested, Dr. Ong. Minorities are entitled to the same product offerings as non-minorities. I know the Institute would not welcome a court case, Doctor. None of your twenty genetic beta-test families is either Black or Jewish!”

“A court … but you’re not Black or Jewish!”

“I’m a different minority. Polish-American. The name was Kaminsky.” Camden finally stood. And smiled warmly. “Look, it is preposterous. You know that, and I know that, and we both know what a grand time journalists would have with it anyway. And you know that I don’t want to sue you with a preposterous case just to use the threat of premature and adverse publicity to get what I want. I don’t want to make threats at all, believe me I don’t. I just want this marvelous advancement you’ve come up with for my daughter.” His face changed, to an expression Ong wouldn’t have believed possible on those particular features: wistfulness. “Doctor, do you know how much more I could have accomplished if I hadn’t had to sleep all my life?”

Elizabeth Camden said harshly, “You hardly sleep now.”

Camden looked down at her as if he had forgotten she was there. “Well, no, my dear, not now. But when I was young … college, I might have been able to finish college and still support … Well. None of that matters now. What matters, Doctor, is that you and I and your board come to an agreement.”

“Mr. Camden, please leave my office now.”

“You mean before you lose your temper at my presumptuousness? You wouldn’t be the first. I’ll expect to have a meeting set up by the end of next week, whenever and wherever you say, of course. Just let my personal secretary, Diane Clavers, know the details. Anytime that’s best for you.”

Ong did not accompany them to the door. Pressure throbbed behind his temples. In the doorway Elizabeth Camden turned. “What happened to the twentieth one?”

“What?”

“The twentieth baby. My husband said nineteen of them are healthy and normal. What happened to the twentieth?”

The pressure grew stronger, hotter. Ong knew that he should not answer; that Camden probably already knew the answer even if his wife didn’t; that he, Ong, was going to answer anyway; that he would regret the lack of self-control, bitterly, later.

“The twentieth baby is dead. His parents turned out to be unstable. They separated during the pregnancy, and his mother could not bear the twenty-four-hour crying of a baby who never sleeps.”

Elizabeth Camden’s eyes widened. “She killed it?”

“By mistake,” Camden said shortly. “Shook the little thing too hard.” He frowned at Ong. “Nurses, Doctor. In shifts. You should have picked only parents wealthy enough to afford nurses in shifts.”

“That’s horrible!” Mrs. Camden burst out, and Ong could not tell if she meant the child’s death, the lack of nurses, or the Institute’s carelessness. Ong closed his eyes.

When they had gone, he took ten milligrams of cyclobenzaprine-III. For his back — it was solely for his back. The old injury was hurting again. Afterward he stood for a long time at the window, still holding the paper magnet, feeling the pressure recede from his temples, feeling himself calm down. Below him Lake Michigan lapped peacefully at the shore; the police had driven away the homeless in another raid just last night, and they hadn’t yet had time to return. Only their debris remained, thrown into the bushes of the lakeshore park: tattered blankets, newspapers, plastic bags like pathetic trampled standards. It was illegal to sleep in the park, illegal to enter it without a resident’s permit, illegal to be homeless and without a residence. As Ong watched, uniformed park attendants began methodically spearing newspapers and shoving them into clean self-propelled receptacles.

Ong picked up the phone to call the chairman of Biotech Institute’s board of directors.