Simon stared down, and looked upon the stoic, shrunken visage of George Washington.
The President’s face was pock-marked, scarred with hundreds of tiny scratches. Each one probably had a story.
Perhaps that tiny crater by the President’s nose had been caused when an office worker had forcibly inserted the coin into a too-narrow opening in a soda machine dispenser. Possibly the worker had been stressed, pushed to breaking point by a boss who drove them too hard.
That tiny valley, that ran parallel with George’s neck, maybe that had been created by a ticket machine in the subway, when this quarter had crashed into another somewhere deep in the bowels of the mechanized dispenser. Maybe propelled by a harassed commuter, on their way to slave away in a anonymous cubicle of a company no-one has heard of.
That large indentation on the edge of the coin, in line with Washington’s nose, perhaps that had been created when the coin had thudded into the sidewalk, after it had escaped through the hole in a child’s trouser pocket, an opening his already over-burdened mother had been promising to repair for weeks...
Stories, stories, stories.
Money always had them.
And they were never as banal as the trivial fantasies he had just imagined.
No. The stories money told were never meaningless.
Money spoke of death. Of repossession. Of divorce. Of homelessness.
At the same time, it also crowed about private jets. Of bespoke Italian tailoring. Of diamonds mined by a child in return for food, and then sold for millions.
Not for the first time, the absurdity of the object on the table beside his coffee cup overwhelmed Simon. This strange, inert, circular metal disc, innately meaningless. Until someone assigned it a numerical value.
Then it became something... Something else entirely...
"It’s time,” Ralph said, gently. “Time.”
Simon raised his head, and looked into the face of his... what?
Business partner? No, that seemed wrong.
Accomplice? That suited the man opposite him better.
At least, it used to.
Now he didn't know what Ralph was to him.
Just another pig with his nose in the trough.
"Yes or no, Simon?" Ralph asked.
"As binary as ever," Simon sighed. He lifted the cup, and sipped at the cold coffee. As he drunk, he could see his hand tremor. Not from cold; the diner was warm. He was tired.
So, so tired.
Ordinarily he would have looked around, trying to catch the eye of the waitress, and then beckoned her over. Dutifully she would have made her way across the checkered linoleum, and re-filled his cup. However, the goons Ralph had brought with him had ushered the staff to the manager's office. There was no custodian of the coffee-pot to call on, so the cold liquid would have to suffice.
The few customers had left without complaint when the gorilla Ralph called 'Enoch' had opened his suit jacket, and showed everyone the thick, black handle of the gun jammed in his waistband.
Apart from the four men who doubled as Ralph's 'heavies', the only people remaining in the diner were he and Simon.
And the latter was exhausted. Spent. Beaten.
"The offer is a good one," Ralph said, leaning back. The bright red vinyl upholstery squeaked as he leant his back against it. "Take it. For me. Take the money, and live out the rest of your days in..."
"What, luxury?" Simon asked.
"With five million, you'd be more than..."
"What difference does five million make?"
"A fairly vast one, in my estimation."
"I've already got more wealth than I can ever, ever spend," Simon said, slowly. "My children don't need to ever work a day in their lives. Nor their children. Nor theirs. So, I ask again: What difference does another five million truly make?"
"Then take it for them."
"Your children," Ralph said. "Accept the offer so, next week, they won't have to be choosing a casket."
"If the melodrama is supposed to frighten me, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you."
"You know as well as I that it's not melodrama, Simon." Ralph sat forward, leaning his forearms on the edge of the table. "If you say 'no', you're a..."
"A dead man?" Simon asked, taking a gulp of the cold coffee. "Morally, I've been dead for a long time now. A bullet in the skull will only ensure my biological status matches my ethical one."
"Tell me. Honestly. You're really willing to die for this?" A trace of desperation had infected Ralph's tone. Simon felt sorry for him; it appears Ralph had arrived tonight with the genuine belief he could change his mind.
Once again, Simon was going to disappoint him.
"It's just money, you arrogant prick," Ralph began. "It's..."
"No," Simon shouted, banging the bottom of his fist on the table. George Washington was briefly airborne, before landing with a tiny, tinny, dull thud.
Simon could feel his chest tighten, his skin prickle. Why couldn't Ralph understand? Why couldn't he see?
"This isn't about money," Simon said through clenched teeth. "Screw money. Money doesn't matter. They'll be destroying... they'll be destroying..."
"What? What will they be destroying?"
"The idea. They'll be destroying the idea."
Simon stared at his oldest friend. Searching for a sign he understood. That he comprehended the magnitude of the betrayal.
There was none.
Ralph's middle-aged face showed nothing but a trace of frustration. Simon stared at the lines around Ralph's eyes. The signs of old-age? Or had his former partner been spending too many weekends at the compound on Grand Cayman with his new paymasters?
Simon wouldn't be alive long enough to find out. Not it mattered.
"The idea was flawed," Ralph finally said.
"It was anything but."
"We were naive. We never considered..."
"I considered everything I needed to," Simon spat. "It was your job to protect the idea. It seems I over-estimated your abilities."
"You've already done the same to me. Suppose I'd simply be returning the favor."
At least Ralph has the decency to look away, staring out of the large window to his left.
Without thinking, Simon copied him, watching the headlights of the cars as they sped past the diner on the darkened highway. Cars carrying families, husbands, mothers, fathers, and mothers to places they - in all probability - had no need to visit.
Journeys whose importance was fabricated by the people who got rich off the use of the vehicles they drove, and the fuel used to power them.
Consumption. Profit. The only things that truly counted.
"Do you like this world?" Ralph asked. His voice was toneless. Dead. "Do you like what you see?"
"No, of course I don't," Ralph replied, his eyes still fixed on the highway.
"The poverty. The disenfranchised. The greed. The..."
"I said, no."
"Then why? Why did you do it?"
"Because we will never win."
"How can you say that knowing that people came to us. They came, Ralph. They believed in what we were offering. They believed in..."
"What? A Utopia. A paradise not controlled by the banks, or government. A place where physical money didn't exist. A land determined by a cashless currency."
"A digital, cashless currency. One they - the people - would have power over. They came. They gave their money. They wanted that transformation to happen...."
"No," Ralph said. "They wanted to make a profit. The only ones who believed in the dream were us. Utopia? Really?"
"What happened? Why did you lose your faith?"
"If you over-estimated me, then I over-estimated them," Ralph said, turning back to look at him.
"We were close..."
"Thirty-six billion dollars, Simon. Thirty-six billion dollars that was out of general circulation, that they couldn't exploit. Or use. Or profit from. Thirty-six billion dollars that was hidden in some digital vault, in an unreachable part of the Internet. Just sitting there, dormant, waiting for the Western World to crumble. Waiting for Utopia to rise up in its place. Do you honestly think they were really going to let that slide?"
"We were close..." Simon repeated, meekly.
"It's not the people's money. It's... theirs. And they want it back."
"Bullshit. They don't want the money. They want the idea. The concept of cryptocurrency. We've shown them another way of making money. They'll exploit that, just as they everything else."
"You're both right, and wrong," Ralph said flatly.
"Of course they want the idea. You mined one million bitcoins; do you have any idea how many even the smallest bank could mine? It's infinite, Simon. A way of making money without needing to print any. Without any of the annoying laws that always accompany it. Of course they want the bloody idea."
"That covers the being right part. But how am I wrong?"
"They also want the money you hid."
"But it's not theirs..."
"Haven't you been listening? It's all theirs. It's not the people's: It's the banks. It always was." Ralph looked him, pity etched on his handsome features.
"Then it will give me great pleasure to ensure that..." Simon stopped. Suddenly the look of pity on Ralph's face made sense. "You've already got it."
"The alias on the accounts you moved everything to was too easy."
"You're bluffing," Simon said, weakly.
The name of the teaching assistant at M.I.T. The quiet, unassuming man who had lit their passion for computing. The man who, indirectly, led to the creation of a technology firm that made two kids from Boston richer than God.
And from whose mind the seeds of Utopia had been sown three decades earlier.
"Don't be," Ralph replied. "You were always too sentimental."
The two most famous technology entrepreneurs in the world looked at each other. Three decades of shared history hanging the air between them.
"Then why are we here?" Simon finally asked. "You have the money. You have the idea. Why are you here offering me five million dollars?"
"It's not about the money, you dick."
"It's about letting you live. It's giving you the chance to walk away. All you have to do is promise to never, ever, revisit any of this again. Leave it. Bitcoin. Everything. Just walk away. That's why they've let me come here and make this offer. They'll trust me. But you have to trust me. You have to tell me you're out."
Simon looked down as George Washington again. As he stared at the quarter, he noticed another scratch on its surface.
"Do you think we made the world a better place?" he asked.
"We invented software no-one had the imagination to. We created machines that are used in hospitals, and save lives. We gave hundreds of thousands of people livelihoods," replied Ralph. "Yes, I think we made the world a better place."
"I'm glad you feel that way."
"And now it's time to let someone else have a go. It's time to retreat into retirement. And let someone else try to create that Utopia. We tried. And we failed."
Suddenly there were no cars on the highway outside. Quiet. Darkness.
The world, both inside and outside, the diner fell quiet. Waiting.
"All you have to do is walk away."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," Simon said. "I won't give up on the dream..."
Simon's sentence was interrupted by a bullet from Enoch's gun, which was no longer hidden in his waistband, entering his temple. He fell to his right, and his shattered skull thudded into the window.
Ralph sat, unmoving. Although he knew this was how this evening would end, he had still...
Slowly, he edged his way out of the booth, and stood. The men who had accompanied him were already in action. One of them was in the manager's office, ensuring no video of anything that had happened remained. The others...
Who cared. All Ralph knew was that he had to make the offer; whatever anyone else did before, during, and after that, was none of his concern. He had been the messenger, that's all. Trying to deliver a message that would never be received.
"Sentimental, and naive."
Enoch threw his gun onto the seat next to Simon, where it nestled against his thigh. Ralph turned, and moved towards the exit.
Four days later, a depressed, middle-aged woman stood, unsteadily, in front of a cigarette machine in a bar three hundred miles from where - according to media reports - the businessman, Simon Gardner, had committed suicide in a diner.
She'd had too much to drink, and - as was the norm when inebriated - felt the compulsive need to smoke. She fiddled in her purse, searching for coins to feed the machine.
Her fingers found a battered quarter, riven with scars and dents. If she'd been sober enough to study it, she would have seen a small trace of blood on its surface, another chapter in its inert history.
She wasn't. And ten seconds later the coin sat hidden deep inside the machine, in a pile of hundreds like it.
Each of which had its own story to tell.
None of which had a happy ending.
If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, and mental health: The story of my admission to a psychiatric ward, and my attempts to rebuild my life following my discharge, starts with 'Flow: The Psychiatric Ward.'
You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.
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