Memory Chasers

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How to Meet Not-Serial Killers

Erik used the contact page of OnMoneyAndLife.com to send a note to the blogger. For the message, he used Rena’s suggestion almost word-to-word. Then he sent it off, expecting ‘Uncle Moe’, as On Money and Life sometimes called himself, to get back to him in a few days.

Erik studied the fuel-less helicopter model blueprints during the wait. It intrigued him enough to start building a working model. The blueprints included notes on what to buy and where to buy them, so Erik used them as a basis to purchase the necessary materials.

Two days later, Erik’s model helicopter passed the test flying stage. He also received a long-awaited email:

Hi, ESR…

Sorry for taking so long to reply. But you did say you expected me to take about a week, so… ;-)

Anyway, thanks for your comment. You really made my day when you told me how much you liked “Why I Fly a Helicopter”. It’s on my list of favorite posts, and it’s far less popular than others for reasons that escape me.

Regarding coffee: Yes! Mrs. OMAL and I are returning from our FL trip on the 25th, and we have a layover at DCA. We can certainly meet then.

Oh, and I expect you to buy the coffee… :-)

Regards,
Moe

It took Erik less than a minute to type his response:

Great, and sure. Coffee is on me :-)

Erik and On Money and Life, a.k.a. Uncle Moe, ironed out the details of their meeting via email. Moe suggested that they meet at a coffee shop, so Erik gave him the address to Café Delta, the independent roaster slash coffee shop Susan and Sam Tate owned and operated. Erik then asked Moe if he needed a ride from the airport and Moe replied no, he had arrangements but thank you very much for offering.

Erik put a great deal of thought on how to approach the meeting in the days that followed. He gave the Tates a heads up, and Sam promised he’d text him if suspected Moe was a serial killer. Erik then practiced different ways to present his model helicopter as evidence. He also mulled over what he should wear, and decided his work outfit—dark turtleneck, black pants, and matching shoes—made him look sufficiently harmless and sane. Finally, he scheduled to take a half-day on the twenty-fifth to ensure he’d have enough time to meet Moe. Apparently taking time off was such a rare thing for Erik several of his coworkers asked what he was up to. Sean, in particular, was incessant in his questioning.

“To meet a potential serial killer,” Erik replied to the latter.

Sean’s left eye twitched. “Seriously?”

“As serious as heart attack.”

Sean stared at him for a long time.

“You know, I’m this close to actually believing you, just because you’re the one saying it,” Sean declared at length.

Erik smiled at that.

So the days passed. Then the twenty-fifth dawned, pink and anxious. Erik bicycled to Café Delta after work, as he was unwilling to pay the king’s ransom the city charged for parking. On the way, he received the collective ire from a multitude of drivers, who were not used to bicyclists hogging the right lane. Erik found himself exercising not only his legs but his arm as a result.

Erik reached Café Delta five minutes before the agreed time. Across the street, at the café’s entrance, where a crowd of people dressed like tourists lounged on benches, he spotted someone. He was a mountain of a man, enormous in both height and girth, who wore tiny oval glasses and sported a mass of mousy curls. He was talking to a slim and elegant lady, who had her hair braided around her head like a garland of antique silver.

It’s probably him, Erik thought as he locked up his bike. On Money and Life peppered tiny details about his person all over his blog, and the man matched the collective description. Still, Erik held up the sign he made last night, which said:

OnMoneyAndLife.com

The large man waved at Erik once he spotted him and his sign. Only then did Erik approach the café. As he did so, Erik noticed a lean and heavily-bearded man in jeans and plaid sitting next to On Money And Life. Though Erik was certain he’d never met this man before, he thought he looked strangely familiar. Something about the bristly black beard…one didn’t see many of those around.

“Mr. OMAL?” said Erik once he cleared the distance, offering his hand to the large man who waved.

The man blinked, which didn’t surprise Erik. Strangers tended to mistake him for a tall woman until he spoke.

“Yes, I’m Moses Canes,” said the man, finally shaking Erik’s hand. “Please call me Moe. Very nice to see you in person, Mr. ESR…what is your real name, by the way?”

“Erik Ransom, and likewise.”

Moe gave him a broad smile. “Hello, Erik. This is my wife, Frances,” Moe indicated the elegant woman he’d been conversing with earlier, “And this is the capital branch of the Canes family.”

Moe waved at the gaggle of people Erik hitherto thought were tourists. Moe’s transport, Erik realized as he shook hands with them all. Then he puzzled over why a few of the young adult Caneses held his hand a beat longer than necessary before turning his attention back to Moe.

“I also brought some friends with me,” said Moe, the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You might know them already.”

He waved at the bearded man and his family, which consisted of a wife, two sons and a daughter, all under the age of ten, the girl taller and older than the boys. Somehow, though he’d never met these people, Erik thought both wife and husband looked familiar, the husband more so than the wife.

Abruptly, Erik realized how he knew.

“Mr. Bullion?” he asked, squinting.

“That’s me,” said Mr. Bullion, grinning and proffering a hand.

Erik remembered to shake it, eventually.

“I saw your photo on Moe’s blog,” he babbled. “You went to Asunción for that mini-retreat.”

“Yep,” said Mr. Bullion. “So you read my blog?”

“No,” Erik lied, before he could stop himself. “Haven’t got around to it.”

Mr. Bullion shrugged. “That’s okay. Now I hope you don’t mind if I plug it shamelessly…”

“No, I don’t mind,” said Erik, thinking: pull yourself together, Ransom, and be nice even if it kills you.

Erik led his guests to his favorite outdoor seating spot in Café Delta. A curved raised bed full of hydrangeas, azaleas, hostas, and Japanese maple framed the secluded spot. For seating, there were several iron-wrought chairs and circle tables that sported open parasols. The group, by almost wordless agreement, split to smaller ones and clustered around different tables. Erik had Moe, Frances Canes, and Mr. and Mrs. Bullion at his. Erik made a point to pull up a chair for Mrs. Canes and Mrs. Bullion, who, to Erik’s untrained eye, looked like a mother-and-daughter pair.

“Nice spot,” said Mrs. Bullion, whose real name Erik didn’t catch because he was so focused on being nice.

“Glad you like it,” said Erik politely. “I’ll go order the drinks. What would you like?”

Mrs. Canes and Mrs. Bullion asked for Masala Chai. As for Moe and Mr. Bullion…

“Get me the biggest, fattest and fanciest Latte Thing for my friend Jacob, who looks like our country is going through a severe famine!” Moe boomed, slapping Bullion’s back.

“And a tiny single shot espresso for this guy, who looks like he caused it,” Bullion rejoined.

Erik felt a smile tug at his mouth. “Okay,” he said. Then he went inside the café to place the orders and perhaps have a short word with the Tates.

Erik didn’t find either Tate behind the counter. Instead, he got ambushed by three young-adult-maybe-college-student Caneses. Erik did his best to recall their names and hold a conversation, but failed miserably at the former and felt like he was taking severe body blows for the latter. So he fled as soon as he collected all the coffees, teas, and Lattes.

Erik found Sam Tate, Moe and Bullion chatting up a storm outside. Sam gave Erik a discrete wink before he trotted back inside the café. Not a serial killer then, Erik thought, as he braced himself for small talk.

Moe and Jacob Bullion plunged right into small talk as soon as they got their choice of hot beverage. Like most people, the two commented on the city’s deranged street configuration, which seemed to have been consciously designed to get people hurt or lost.

“Yeah, a lot of the roads here are deathtraps,” Erik said.

“But you don’t let that stop you from biking. Kudos to you, man,” said Mr. Bullion. “So how do you handle the drivers?”

“I bring a weapon,” said Erik seriously.

Moe and Bullion both burst into laughter.

“Weapon, that’s a good one!” Bullion crowed. “So what do you do? Shoot their tires?”

Erik shrugged. “I haven’t had to. Most drivers get the point when I wave it around.”

The talk then drifted to how Erik came across On Money and Life. Erik spun a more or less truthful tale about his sister Rena needing to figure out retirement planning without any help when she started her first full-time job as a civil servant. Bullion appeared impressed when Erik told him Rena went from saying “401(k)? TSP? What the bleeding freak are these?” to spending ten hours a day immersed in investment classics such as A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Security Analysis, and Common Sense on Mutual Funds, all of which were books littered with formidable-looking graphs, tables, and formulas.

“How did she know to read those?” Bullion asked.

“She didn’t want to buy any books since money was involved in both the subject and the purchase,” Erik replied. “So she went to the public library, located the business section—”

“332.6; my favorite part of the Dewey Decimal Classification,” said Mr. Bullion, grinning.

“—and looked for books that had more than one copy on the shelf,” said Erik, quelling the stab of annoyance at the interjection. “That’s how she picked A Random Walk… The rest was bibliography.”

“Smart woman,” Moe admired. “So how did she transfer her knowledge to you? I’ve been trying to teach my children about money for the last thirty years and I’m still failing.”

“She didn’t try,” said Erik, lips twitching. “Just asked me if I was interested in business and investing after her reading binge. I said no, she said okay, and that was that.”

“So how did you turn from totally indifferent to care enough to learn?” Moe asked.

“I asked Rena to help me set up my finances after I graduated college,” Erik said. He considered mentioning his mother, who taught him how to manage cash flow, but decided against it. “By then, she’d invested through the Internet Insanity era and the Asia Debt Default crisis. Nothing short of a global fiscal collapse would’ve fazed her as an investor. Anyway, when I checked my accounts three years later, I found all my student loans were paid for and I had sixty-eight grand.”

Bullion let out a low whistle.

“I hope you treated your sister to a nice dinner,” said Moe.

“I would’ve offered her a thousand nice dinners if she viewed food as anything other than fuel,” Erik grumbled.

Moe chuckled. “Fine wine?”

“She’s a teetotaler out of physical necessity,” said Erik gravely. “But she loves sleep and fancy tea, so I book a table at a teahouse for her birthday and babysit her kids every other evening instead.”

“Good man,” said Moe. “Now, judging from the fact you jumped from negative net worth to sixty-eight grand in three years, I’m thinking you got your first job seven years ago, just after the Great Recession. That was a great time to start investing.”

“Yes, and I know that now,” said Erik. “Anyway, I wanted to know how she did it. She told me to look up passive investing and Jack Bogle. That’s how I found on money and life dot com.”

“Interesting,” said Moe thoughtfully. “Most people find my blog through Jacob’s. He has a post on investing, too, and his blog is far more popular than mine.”

“I usually check the top result and then scroll down to the middle,” said Erik, while stirring his plain black coffee. “That’s probably how I missed it.”

They talked about Rena some more. Mr. Bullion asked for permission to publish her story on his blog, and Erik told him he’d have to ask her first. Erik had just finishing texting Rena when the Bullion children came over to their table and complained to their mother that they were hungry and bored.

Erik knew in a flash that this was as good a cue to bring up superpowers as any. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the no-fuel helicopter model he’d been working on. To his surprise, Jacob Bullion went rigid at the sight of the model, its exterior a mirror image of the no-fuel helicopter blueprint posted on his blog’s forum.

“Bet none of you can’t make this helicopter fly,” said Erik, after tearing his glance away from Bullion.

“I can!” Little Boy Bullion #1 cried. Little Boy Bullion #2 and Girl Bullion also looked like they wanted to prove Erik wrong.

“Show me, then,” said Erik, offering them the model helicopter. “I’ll give this to the person who can.”

Little Boy Bullion #1 snatched the model from Erik’s hand and studied it, a look of fierce concentration on his young face. The model passed back and forth between him and his siblings as the three tried to figure it out. In a few minutes, Girl Bullion identified the mechanism that would let her start the engine. But only if she had Erik’s superpower.

The sound of a revving engine pierced through the afternoon air. It sent the birds resting in the Japanese maple trees flying.

The silence that met Girl Bullion when she triumphantly brandished the model helicopter was complete.

“…Moe,” Bullion said at last. “I need to have a word with Lucy. Can you talk to Erik?”

“Why not talk together?” asked Moe. “It’s not like we’re going to tell them different things.”

“I know, and you’re absolutely right,” Bullion said solemnly. “Lucy and Erik both need to know what they’re getting themselves into. Since they’re vastly different in age, I think we should split the effort.”

“All right,” Moe acquiesced. “Frances, why don’t you join Jacob? He and Premila might need the support.”

Mrs. Canes nodded, much to the adult Bullions’ plain relief. Lucy Bullion, on the other hand, started to look uneasy, like she was suspecting she was in trouble.

“It’s mine, now, right?” she asked, uncertain.

Erik bobbed his head up and down. “All yours.”

The Bullions and Mrs. Canes migrated to the indoor seats of Café Delta. Once they left, Erik and Moe sat quietly without looking at each other for a beat.

“Jacob learned about this at the Asunción retreat, and he’s still not comfortable with it. It’s one of the few things we don’t see eye-to-eye,” Moe said.

“I’m sorry,” Erik muttered, not looking up.

“No, I understand. I know you couldn’t help it,” Moe smiled ruefully. “Heaven knows I couldn’t shut up about it when I first discovered it. It cost me dearly, too. I was young and stupid, and things were a lot different back then.”

Erik kept his mouth shut.

“So what do you want to know?” asked Moe.

“I don’t know enough to know what I should ask,” Erik said carefully. “I discovered it about a week ago.”

“You know enough to make that helicopter,” Moe retorted. “It took me years and a lot of mistakes to get where you are at right now. You’re far smarter than I am. Certainly better looking.”

“No way,” said Erik at once.

Moe’s smile turned wry. “Tell me, do your friends ever tell you that you’re oblivious?”

“My sister does,” said Erik, a bit startled at the non-sequitur.

“Of course,” said Moe, radiating rueful empathy. “Anyway, this thing…it’s a lot like investing, in a way. Everyone who has it knows something about it, but most find learning the real thing about as pleasurable as root canals. It’s called qi, by the way.”

Erik felt his heart race after hearing the name. “Qi,” he echoed, testing its sound.

“It’s also called chokmah, prana, anima, and nephesh,” Moe added.

“Wait, what?” said Erik, confused.

“It has a lot of names,” said Moe, chuckling. “I like qi because it’s short. Now, I’d love to give you a primer on qi right here, right now, but that might take me several hours, and my family wants to tour this fine city.”

“Are there any books that I can read?” Erik asked.

“Well, the subject being what it is, there isn’t a lot of accurate stuff to find,” Moe said. “Which is a pity. But there is the equivalent of The Richest Man in Babylon. Have you read it?”

“I read the free e-book version. So what’s the title? Do they have a similar format?”

Frost; and no, not really,” said Moe. “The Richest Man in Babylon, as you know, is a collection of short parables written to teach people Personal Finance one-oh-one. Frost reads more like a memoir written by Lieutenant Weaver, who had an extraordinary encounter with a mysterious wizard. There’s no other book out there that does a better job of teaching you what qi is and what it can do, in my opinion.”

Erik nodded his head slowly.

“There are free copies of Frost floating around on the Internet, so don’t bother buying,” Moe went on. “Now, most people recommend you just read the last two pages of chapter three, but I don’t because I believe you miss a lot of important nuances if you do. I also know people find it hard to read because of its language and plot, but if you can read through The Richest Man in Babylon…

“Arkad, hast thou yet achieved the wealth thou dreamed of?” said Erik, quoting from memory.

Moe threw his head back and laughed. “You definitely won’t have trouble. Frost is more contemporary than that!”

Erik bade adieu to the Caneses and the Bullions shortly thereafter, citing his real promise to babysit his sister’s kids. Before he left, Erik exchanged phone numbers with Moe and Jacob Bullion. Moe was adamant about Erik calling him in a day.

“It’s hard to find people who are in the know,” Moe said. “I want to keep in touch. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

“Okay,” said Erik. “And don’t worry, I’ll call.”

Erik then left the café. As he donned his helmet, he reviewed what he should tell Rena. He also wondered if his sister had already discovered qi, but didn’t tell him because she thought he wasn’t ready. Only a week ago, I would’ve said she was nuts, Erik admitted in his head as he unlocked his bike.

Erik had just started to peddle down the road when a loud honk jolted him out of his reverie. He looked back and saw a mini-bus a few feet behind him. Its portly driver honked at him again while making obscene gestures.

Erik pulled out a crowbar from his backpack and held it up menacingly. Go ahead. Try to clip me. I’m armed!

The bus’s brake lights turned on.

Erik gave the driver the haughtiest look he could muster. Then he stashed his crowbar and pedaled away.

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