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  • Justin couldn't sleep. You shouldn't think I'm talking insomnia the way some people say they're STARVING if it's 8 o'clock in the evening and they've only eaten a snack size bag of Doritos since waking up at noon. Justin. Could. Not. Sleep. He'd been awake for fourteen days and 23 hours when he arrived at the Free Clinic where I volunteer one day a week. The one on Beverly Blvd. just east of Beverly Hills and west of L.A.'s less showy neighborhood of one percenters, Hancock Park. We get steady traffic year round. Kids who have dropped out of college and whose parents won't keep them on their health insurance. 50-somethings who were laid off in '08 and haven't had a job since. Recipients of State Disability. Russian emigres who inhabit a shadowy gang economy, sort of like the kleptocracy that arose from the ashes of the country formerly known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Only less money than Russia's kleptocrats because we still have this thing called the rule of law.

    But here was Justin, fitting none of the Clinic's demographics. 40-something, employed by a hot start-up in Silicon Beach, a graduate of Stanford's School of Engineering. He told me he had medical benefits but hadn't yet had time to find a doctor. He was the CEO, he said, and could donate half a million of his company's third round of funding to our little clinic if I could help him sleep. Justin was stripped down to his boxers on the examination table showing no symptoms, not a single one, of sleep deprivation. No aching muscles, confusion, memory lapses, depression or mania, tremor, headaches, higher than normal blood pressure, hallucinations. He was either lying to me, not an uncommon experience at the Clinic, or he was suffering from mental illness.

    I was at the end of my shift and had a couple of hours before meeting Charles at the club so I asked him to describe every hour of every one of the days he hadn't slept. Neither liars nor the mentally ill could account for their actions with any degree of coherence. Justin was neither. His narrative of the previous fourteen days was not simply lucid; it was compelling.

    "So you're working on artificial intelligence down there on Venice Blvd., right?" I asked. A simplistic question given the detail he'd provided of his work, but he was respectful.

    "Yeah, AI, that's right."

    It was a big leap and sent a shiver down the knuckles of my spine but I had to ask.

    "You haven't injected yourself with any nanobots have you?" He smiled the kind of sly smile little kids give you when they know you're on to them. "Two," he said. "Fifteen days ago." Then he crumpled like tissue paper and fluttered to the floor.

    I've posted photos of Justin all over Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu and all the beaches to the south, Huntington, Hermosa, Redondo. Worked with the missing persons bureau, told Justin's story on the local news. Nothing. He was carrying no i.d., not even a smart phone.

    Before I turned his body over to the coroner I took his blood. Now, every night after I get the kids to bed, I go to the freezer and chisel out a sample of it, looking for the nanobot that could make my name and my fortune.

    594 words, 45 minutes
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