This happened to me for the first time two months ago, on a slow Saturday morning. I was percolating some coffee when noises from the apartment’s door made themselves apparent. Somebody was at the lock, not fiddling, but unlocking. Someone had a key. The door opened unceremoniously, and as I came to greet/beat whoever they were, two suburban-looking dames stared back at me with not a smidgeon of bewilderment. They weren’t off balance in the least upon seeing me like that, with only boxers for cover against their prying eyes.
“What the fuck is going on?” I demanded.
The older of the two said she was awfully sorry for the intrusion, that they gave her keys to the apartment and claimed it was empty. She was just showing the place to her client here.
“She’s my client, we’re looking for apartments to rent,” said the agent while gesturing to the younger woman and peering into my abode simultaneously.
“Can’t you see I fucking live here?”
“No need for such language. We truly apologize for this…embarrassment.” There was no discomfort visible in either one of them. I was ready to freak.
“Who do you work for? Who gave you keys to my place?”
“I work for The Apartment Ladies. Your landlord gave us the keys.” At that the two intruders turned tail and sauntered down the dimly lit, hotel-smelling hall.
“Hey! Come back! You can’t do this, I’m calling the cops!” They were gone.
Furious, I closed the door and commenced pacing around my bare living room. I was only in the apartment less than a month then, but still, why would my landlord give complete strangers duplicates? Or maybe signing a lease wasn’t final enough for him?
With all that was happening at work this was not what the doctor ordered. As a supervisor at the site, I had to keep up with threatened co-workers, begrudging managers and nervous investors. Dealing with surreal home invasion sure didn’t help things any. It could only serve to make me question myself, a veritable pastime of mine several well-paid and dubiously-trained therapists failed in taming. Immediately I began kicking myself for not chasing those bitches down the hallway.
So I called the guy, the landlord. He played innocent and said no spare keys were in anyone’s possession other than his and mine. True, a set was left with an agency a couple of months ago but summarily retrieved once I moved in. The landlord further proclaimed just how immensely vexed he was at all this trouble. The landlord also asked me to stay home, promising to dispatch a locksmith ASAP. Feeling like the cogs and sprockets of reason were neatly turning in my favor, I consented. Faced with adversity, you invariably seek assurances reality will be resumed.
While waiting, I added caution to filibuster and asked information for The Apartment Ladies' number. It took five minutes of top twenty alternative rock before someone picked up. I queried for a manager and the guy said he was one. As it transpired, Tom, that was his name, confirmed my landlord provided keys some months priors, hiring the agency in putting the property on the market. Tom apologized wholeheartedly (which I didn’t buy for one split second), and vowed to get to the bottom of this.
Twenty minutes later the locksmith showed up. A slender fellow with a glinting, flinty mask serving as his face, he went ahead with installing the new lock.
“Could you sign here?” he asked.
“The hardware. I’ll charge it to your landlord’s assessment, unless you want to pay for it.”
“Does this happen a lot?”
He retorted without looking at me, seemingly focused on the task at hand. “People walking into other people’s apartments? Once and again. This is a big city, wires get crossed wrong sometimes.”
“So from your experience there’s no reason to be alarmed?”
“I thought the landlord said two ladies came in.”
“So? They were still intrusive.”
He stopped working. “Don’t think about it too much. If anything, you probably gave them a scare. What I would worry about is the security in this building. Here, all done.” He handed me a copy of the work order and packed up to leave, all the while glancing at me with a puckered, almost disappointed expression.
After he left I thought his suggestion I talk to security was pretty reasonable, so I went downstairs and spoke to the guy on duty. He claimed some other individual must’ve let the two strangers inside and denied ever seeing them in the pseudo-friendly tones service people use when they decide you’re not on their side. Right before they do something nasty to your food, mail, car or whatever else they can get their hands on behind your back.
I clambered upstairs and made up my mind to forget about the incident. There was too little time left before Sunday, one of the busiest days at the site. Outside the wind howled and snow began drifting, making my tokens of indoor privacy alluring and homey despite what amounted to little more than the décor archeologists find at Spartan boot camp digs.
Routine took over, lunch became dinner, HBO put on a movie or two and I was properly anesthetized. The weekend, on its way out, stole with it whatever remained of the ill-gotten experience.
Nothing took place till Monday. That was when Douglass and I had a conversation. He was the only sane person I knew at the site. His hat may have been yellow and hard, but his heart remained pliable.
“Raj is just doing her job, too. But she’s crafty. Don’t let her sense any weakness or she’ll make you her slave.”
Raj was another supervisor, hot and desirable. I wanted her bad, and she was using it to keep me from threatening her position with the firm.
“Yeah, well, I can’t wait to get inside her. Fuck office politics. Geddit?”
“I get it. Speaking of being inside, did you hear about the shooting this morning? Right by your place. I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me to mention it before.”
“No, I didn’t. What happened?”
“Some nut pumped a realtor, a mother of three no less, full of lead. Left her a bleeding pulp in the building’s dark hallway.”
I was reaching for two Styrofoam cups, about to dish out putrid, ochre-tasting coffee for the both of us.
“Shot his real estate agent, you said?” I fumbled for Equal. Doug hated actual sugar. “What made him shoot the realtor? Fees were too high?”
“Don’t forget the Equal, and no Nutrasweet. No, she wasn’t his realtor at all.”
Something started to ring true in the back of my head. Doug didn’t know anything regarding my disconcerting episode of two days ago. It slipped my mind entirely, probably because most of my concentration was given to mental images of Raj wearing nothing but her creamy, peach-colored skin.
“When the cops dragged him away, the guy kept saying she was trespassing. Home invasion. A soccer mom home invader. Probably the first ever.” He was already sipping cautiously, more due to foul flavor than excessive heat.
I said, "She came in to his place? Uninvited? With a key, right?"
"Don't know the details, just that he perforated her real good. You look like you saw a ghost."
"Maybe he did, of his own glorious past." Raj. The company was supposed to have a dress code at work sites, but that didn't stop her from donning flared jeans so tight they appeared grafted to the girl's endless legs and perfect butt. "Hey, I need someone to switch with me next Sunday."
"I'll do it", I exclaimed, smiling wanly.
Douglass rolled his eyes.
"Great, thanks." She did a catwalk thing that melted parts of my manhood I've long consigned to antiquity. "How can you people drink this coffee? It's downright gruesome. And what were you talking about? The lady that got shot uptown?"
"Yeah, what do you know about that?"
" Not much. On the radio they said she was a real estate agent, and that an irate client shotgunned her face off." Raj's white sweater was doing a pathetic job of containing her fully-blossomed chest. I was fixated. "OK, gotta run. Don't forget next Sunday. I'll chalk it up on the board."
With that, she was gone.
Douglass got up, looking to make with throttling me dead. "You're such an idiot, man. Don't you remember we're supposed to do movies Sunday night?"
I was in a dream state. Some hideously undertaxed region of my primitive mind was weaving fantasies of intimate encounters with Raj in which she was my slave as payment for taking her shift.
"Hello, you there? Stop it, she isn't about to put up, you freak. Give it a rest, dude, and stay away from the she-devil. Anyway, thanks for the coffee, I'm going back downstairs." He looked at me almost disgustedly, and left.
I snapped back to reality. "Don't worry, Doug, I'll make the movies", I called after him.
The remainder of the week went by as usual. Life paraded itself around me in full technicolor, concocting wars, famine, economic downturns and increasing social disorder. The city teemed with unrest, uncooled even by all the frigid blasts coming out of the arctic. Raj didn't even thank me for helping her out, in fact she managed to stay hidden all week long.
That Saturday, a day before taking my dream girl's unwanted work load, I was once again situated by the window, watching snow pile with a cup of generic coffee at hand. Then two people were in my still hardly furnished habitat. This time a pair of fancily attired, properly coiffed city dwellers. One was even touting a key ring with Lexus insignia on it. The two ladies looked me over, boxers, bare chest and all, with cold fish eyes. There was no emotion in their neutral glare. Immediately they began retreating.
"We're sorry, we didn't know someone already lived here", the one with authority, probably the agent, proclaimed. As before, the presumed client kept her peace.
"What the fuck? This is the second time in a week. Who the hell are you people? What do you want?"
"We need to find apartments for rent."
"But this one's taken! Can't you get that though your thick fucking skulls?"
They were back in the hallway, closing the thin door behind them.
I chased after them, grabbing the door handle. "Who do you work for? Who gave you the keys? Answer me!"
"I work for the Apartment Ladies, sir. Your landlord gave us the keys." They were slowly making their way to the elevator. The hotel smell was cloyingly putrid.
"No you don't, come back here!" But I did not over-step the threshold. They noticed.
"What are you going to do about it, sir?", the one trusted with speech spat at me with less feeling than a mummified mannequin could muster.
"Next time you come by I'll shoot you in the fucking face!"
"Sure." The mockery in her bitch grin made my blood boil. I prayed for courage so I could leap at them and tear the two whores limb from limb.
But the elevator arrived and took them away.
My mind raced, revolving incoherently in a quagmire of hatred, fear and humiliation. The only thing I could think of was what if they walked in on me next while I choked the chicken? Or finally coaxed Raj into sharing an inflatable air bed with me? Those would be the penultimate ego debasers, the kind from which you simply never rebound.
The locksmith and landlord must be in on it, I thought deliriously. And security, too. No point calling any of those people. What about Tom, the manager? He promised. But so did a plethora of others, lilting all kinds of sweet nothings over thirty years. Mostly a load of bullshit.
I reached for the phone.
Tom wasn't there. His secretary acted in not the most forthcoming of ways. He basically told me to go screw myself sideways, politely of course. My apartment was no longer listed on their system, and when I claimed the intruders introduced themselves as Apartment Ladies, he explained them away as frauds using the agency's name. Also, Tom wasn't expected anytime soon. Another busted promise.
That was when I called the cops.
"I'd like to report a home invasion."
"Yes, that's what I said."
"Obviously, but where in the city?"
I gave my address.
"It took me five minutes to get you on the line, now more holding?"
"Are you in any imminent danger?"
"They might come back a third time!"
The line clicked and an ominous soundtrack came on, like something you'd hear in a David Lynch movie.
A few minutes passed. I didn't notice, honest. The music kept me enthralled, almost hypnotized. When a new voice began speaking to me, I was bobbing my head in rhythm. The music only stopped after he addressed me, which was weird, in hindsight.
"Sir, you there? Hello?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"My name's Hamper, Lieutenant Hamper. I understand we're looking at multiple home invasions?"
"How was entry gained?"
"Well, they had keys."
"You gave them keys?"
"No, of course not. They had them."
"Hmmm." Hamper sounded pleasantly surprised. "So they just walked in on you?"
"Correct. Maybe also when I wasn't there, who knows."
"If you don't see it, who cares, though, right?"
"No, my stuff's here!"
"I see. So they had keys. In fact, we're talking more trespassing or unauthorized entry, unless they were armed. Did you see guns or other weapons?"
"One of them had a thousand yard stare."
"No, no weapons."
"Is the address you gave dispatch correct? You live there now?"
There was a slight pause, and typing on a keyboard, which sounded soft, like one of those ergonomic things.
"And that's where they entered the premises on how many occasions?"
"OK, I'm sending a car to pick you up."
"You have a preference?"
"Of car?," I asked.
"No, time. Is now bad? I'd advise urgency. It'll be for the better."
"Alright, I guess now's good."
"Excellent. Be down in the lobby in twenty minutes."
I waited as instructed. The night watchman on duty scribbled something in a log and kept staring at me for prolonged periods of time with a healthy dose of alacrity. His brisk countenance jarred with the constant, drowsy hum from the overhead fluorescents. It was cold outside, but not as frozen as before. Puffy snow flakes drifted lazily earthward. A large, navy blue car pulled up to the front door. I could tell right away it was my ride, not sure why. I guess it did fall in with what you'd expect a cop car to look like. Security noted in his book, what I do not know.
As I pushed my way out through the glass-built exit, a very tall man opened the passenger side door. He nodded at me.
"Thank you for being prompt," and then opened the rear right door for me to get in.
"Cold night for a walk, eh?" he said once we were both inside. The vehicle purred and we were off.
"I don't mind it," I answered.
He turned to me, holding out a police badge. I was impressed with the time he allowed for me to read all the details. "I'm Hamper," he said. "This is Detective Barony. We appreciate your cooperation, especially at this time of night." Barony gave me a curt smile through the rearview.
"It is kinda late to start investigating, don't you think?"
"Well, you called us, son. Besides, justice can't wait. These break-ins have been going on long enough."
Son. More like big brother, if that.
"So what are we going to do about it now?", I asked.
"Wait till we get to the station."
Driving around the city's nearly deserted streets, I swiftly understood something wasn't perfectly kosher. We weren't driving to any police station I knew of, at least not by my place. But I suppose fatigue made me docile, and even though a part of me feared the little detour might be a preamble to something much worse, I kept quiet. Hamper and Barony didn't really say anything, but the latter, who drove, got on the radio a couple of times, conversing with a metallic-sounding cohort.
"This a V8?" I inquired after fifteen minutes of heading in a direction I didn't trust.
"Oh yeah, sounds like it, too."
Somehow my hand wound up on the door handle.
"Relax," Hamper noticed. "We won't bite."
"There's lots worse than getting bitten. Every precinct I know is nowhere near here."
"Well, maybe you just don't know enough precincts," Barony interjected.
"Here we are, see, you fret over the smallest of things sometimes," Hamper exclaimed as if he knew what he was talking about.
A tall office building loomed to our left. It stood on a nicely lit street corner. The falling snow blurred its sharp angles, lending it a warmer, less stark, appearance. They stopped right in front of the main entrance, at the foot of a rise of impressive granite steps.
"Let's go", said Hamper. They both got out, letting a few jingling, beeping cautions fuss into the cold night.
I got out, too. It somehow felt warmer here. I looked around, realizing I had no idea what part of town it was.
"Listen, Hamper. If I run, will you shoot me?"
"Yes, you're in my custody now." He looked at me bemusedly.
"This place is giving me the creeps, man. What kind of cop are you, exactly?"
"OK, we're not city cops. But there's other agencies, right?"
"Well, which are you?"
"You'll see. It'll all make sense soon. Come along now."
"Fuck this kidnap shit!"
Barony came from behind and grabbed me by the arm.
Hamper observed with more amusement. "How ungrateful of you. We come to your aid, and are paid with contempt. Never mind, let's roll."
I followed Hamper up the stairs and to the elevator bank, Barony prodding me along. Inside, after an arduous ascent, I made out Hamper's gun under his winter coat. It had a purple butt.
He caught me staring again. "Not for you, pal. For the bad guys."
Large, pneumatic doors whooshed open, revealing a sprawling, sepia-toned room. The first thing I saw was Raj standing tall right at its center. She wore a classy silk suit, purplish blue. A white satin shirt glistened beneath. Although not as overtly sexy as I usually knew her from work, Raj resembled the apogee of female allure at that specific moment more than at any other time.
"Welcome," she offered.
Hamper and Barony disappeared into a room off to the side. The place itself was lively, teeming with the bustle and background noises of a bureaucracy determined to perpetuate itself. Phones rang, people rushed to and fro. A couple of toughies stood at a corner, smoking cigarettes and exchanging worried looks. They saw me gazing at them and moved away.
Raj touched my arm. I shifted to look at her.
"Why don't you come in to the room? There's much to talk about." Her tone was firm, but friendlier than before. The mean, playful edge was absent.
"Raj, what the fuck are you doing here? Are you a cop?"
"I know it's confusing. Let's go. There's answers."
She held me by the hand, motioning with her head towards the door through which the two detectives vanished.
The room was small and completely odorless. Once Raj closed the door shut, the office sounds practically ceased. Barony and Hamper sat next to each other. Raj pulled up a chair for me to occupy right across from them and remained standing.
"Sit down, pal," ordered Barony. He leaned back, showing off another purple butt belonging to what was apparently a large weapon. I sat in the folding chair, and it creaked. "I'm feeling slightly threatened here," I said.
"No reason for that, as long as you make a few simple choices," replied Hamper. "Let's review your situation," he added. There were no files or folders. His review of my predicament must have been mental.
"Your apartment is a special place. That's why those people keep coming back. They'll return in the future to make sure the place is indeed what they think it is and to drive you out. Eventually, one of theirs will live there."
"One of theirs?"
"Listen, they're scouts, working for a management company that wants you out." Hamper looked at me evenly.
"Management of what?"
"All this, what you see around you, it's all real estate, really." He swept the room with his arms. "Now, certain places have unique qualities that are important to management companies. The firms licensed to run it all. We work for one such company."
"You're not cops?"
"No, of course not. Raj was assigned to your case a long time ago. That's how we knew your apartment's so vital. We must have that space. It controls all kinds of crap for outlying areas."
"Are you insane?"
"Look, believe what you want, but they'll come back again and again, until one day you'll get a visit not from a realtor but a wetwork specialist. Then you'll be sorry."
"What do you think happened to the dude that shot those real estate agents? He was just like you before," explained Barony.
"You have to work for us," said Raj from behind me.
Hamper paused for a second before speaking. "You understand. I can see it in your eyes. Just sign this." He produced what looked like a contract from a drawer.
Raj picked it up and showed it to me. "Once we finalize it, you'll enter out training program, and, if you pass, you'll become full-time payroll, which is quite the luxury." She smiled. What a perfect smile.
"Training program? To become what, a certified nutcase?"
Hamper and Barony glanced at each other reproachfully.
"No, it's like what happened to you at the McDonald's last year, remember?"
How in blazes did they know about that?
I flashed back to the Mickey D's on Aldiss Blvd. All those months ago. It was a perfect day, nice and calm. My Big Extra meal even came with a scratch and win, which I actually won. A sundae. Now what on earth beats a free sundae on a hot summer day? As I sat there lapping up the warm fudge and peanuts, I noticed two skater punks harassing a couple of teenage girls. The girls were minding their own business, but the punks kept picking on them, making faces and shouting obscenities.
Look, I'm not a prude asshole, but just coming up to strangers and sadistically annoying them doesn't bake my cookie at all. And one of the jerks had a shirt with Nazi slogan printed on the front, which really made things weird in a sinister way. Naturally, I didn't say or do anything, just hurried my lapping up and made a quick exit, leaving the girls to suffer. But in my mind I did. In my mind I bashed their skulls, reducing them to pulp with the butt of a high caliber handgun. My fantasies frequently featured handguns in prominent roles.
"Well, my friend, sign this and you can have that gun."
"What?" I re-emerged in the realm of the present.
"You have all the makings of a crusader for civilization." There was a smirk on Hamper's face as he said this.
I asked how he knew about the gun and the whole incident.
"You told me," claimed Raj. She lit up a cigarette, offered me one. I declined. They made me woozy back then. Looking up at the fluorescents, it dawned on me there was no leaving this room without humoring them. Hamper pushed the papers in my direction.
"Please, sign these. They'll allow you to do that which you've always wanted done, a chance to fight for the world as you see it in your mind's eye."
Raj put her hand on mine. "Sure, the management company has an interest and an agenda. But what do you care? You'll finally be acknowledged, and so will those feelings you been carrying around all your life. You know, bad guys versus good guys. This paper", she held it up for me to see, "once and for all takes you into the fold. You'll be a good guy."
"What do you want me to do?"
"First sign," Barony almost shouted. "You're boring the shit out of everybody."
Forgive me for my weakness and vanity, but I did. I signed, and it was like my soul departed at that very moment. A hollow contentedness of the variety totally alien to me until that fateful instance took residence in every fiber of my existence. I guess that's what selling out truly feels like. Good. Really good.
None of them seemed relieved or surprised, as if it was a foregone conclusion that I'd sign.
"OK, let's get down to business. You're now obligated to the management company and will follow our instructions. The training program is quite simple. I don't anticipate any problems."
"What do you want me to do?"
"You will kill the realtors next time they enter your apartment."
Hamper didn't look annoyed at all with me pretending to misunderstand what he just said.
He uttered his next words slowly and deliberately.
"You will shoot them, no matter what time of day it happens to be and regardless of how many witnesses there are. Afterwards, you will allow yourself to be captured by the police that arrive on the scene."
"Like that guy in the news."
"Yes, he did just fine," commented Barony. "Except none of that shit was meant to be public knowledge. Someone in the media slipped up again."
"Forget that. You'll do great, I'm sure." Raj squeezed my hand gently. She leaned forward and I peered directly into her maelstrom of DD goodness. Oh lord.
Hamper didn't approve. "See, that's exactly the kind of distraction you don't need right now. Just focus on the task at hand. You have to eliminate whoever the other company sends. This will transmit a signal that the apartment is taken, for good."
"How do you know they'll send more?"
"They always do. And there's rules to this game, just like there are rules to your employment with us," Hamper said, puzzled at my doubting him.
"Can I read the contract?"
"No, we'll make sure you know all the important stuff." Barony had little patience for rookies, I supposed.
"Do I keep the my job? The one I have now?" I addressed Raj.
"Yes, for a while at least," she answered.
"Alright, here's a gun. There's a full clip in it already," Hamper told me.
I felt the weapon. Solid and reassuring in my grip.
"What if I shoot you people right here and now? Or run away?"
"You can't. Your life will be over in seconds. From now on, the company owns you. At any time you can be removed from the payroll, and trust me, it's one severance package you won't like. Take the gun home and wait. Go about your business as usual. It'll happen."
Hamper filed my contract in the drawer, then got up. Barony rose too.
Raj drove me home. On the way she spoke of meeting me at the site the next day. It was all very surreal.
"The gun we gave you works a bit differently from other weapons. It's density sensitive."
"What does that mean?"
"It means the piece has a built in sensor that detects exactly how much penetration is needed for every shot and every target. Thus two aims are achieved at once." She swerved around some slow moving traffic. "First, there's no exit wounds. The bullets linger inside your victims, creating further injury. Plus, we have less of a mess to clean up, you know, gore splattered all over the premises isn't good for business. Same applies for stray bullets striking out property. We don't want to fuss over fixing holes. But make sure your aim is true. You'll get demerits for causing collateral damage."
"Nice touch. Is this really happening to me?" I asked naively.
"Sure is. Best thing for you in the long run, I promise."
"What's the reward again?"
"Maybe more than you can comfortably handle."
We got to my apartment, and Raj practically jettisoned me out of her leather-upholstered car. I never realized she cruised in a hand-made British sportster.
The work week whizzed by blurrily, like a bad movie you can't quit watching on late night cable, or a miserable premonition taunting your senses with indefatigable credibility. There was nothing I could do but wait it out. I put the gun in a kitchen cabinet and held out for the jingle at the door.
When it came the following Sunday, I hesitated. They were almost inside, and still I was frozen. Out of nowhere, a dizzying, blackish sensation pulled over me. Everything seemed to be winding down as I stood by the cabinet where the gun was stashed. Don't ask me how, but I knew it was death itself taking a hold of me by degrees.
Barony, that mean bastard, would have probably loved it if I failed to grab the weapon and simply faded out of existence right there and then. But I didn't. The second it was in my hand, an acute alertness swept away the encroaching darkness like so much flotsam. I never felt more alive.
Two middle aged ladies stood there, looking at me knowingly. The density-savvy instrument of demise was already in my hand, and they saw it. One had big pearl earrings that glittered under the lights, while her friend suddenly flitted away into the second room. I shot the be-earringed one where she stood. Three rounds, no splatter. The gun roared voluminously but had almost no recoil.
As my first victim groaned her way to the floor and died, I could hear the second one cocking her own weapon behind the drywall that stood between us. She panted hoarsely, but managed to say something like "I'm with the Apartment Ladies, sir, drop your weapon." My heightened sense of elation kept me from giving a rat's ass what she said. I put a bullet through the wall, and she uttered a tiny "Uggh!" in response, but still moved. My second shot cracked open something vital, seeing as faint gurgling noises followed by a quiet thud came next. The reverberating thunder left by our little leaden discourse (well, monologue, really) soon faded, only to be replaced by wailing sirens and fussing neighbors. I put the gun back in the drawer and sat in the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee before the law made its rude entrance.
But in retrospect, they weren't all that rude. Efficient, yes, but not rude. They treated me with utmost professional courtesy, and in less than forty minutes I was back at the building where Raj and the others enlisted me to begin with. I was put in a comfortable room for the night, which even had a TV and full cable. Some of the local channels reported a double homicide but were extremely sketchy on details.
As were the papers the following morning. Raj showed them to me.
"See, you're not even famous for all the hard work. How was it?"
"Not too bad."
"Maybe even felt good, getting back at them? Don't be afraid to say so."
"Sure, maybe it was. But now I'm a murderer. Still hasn't sunk in."
"Murderer. That's all very relative, my friend. Cops can pop someone's head off for holding up a cell phone and then they call them heroes for it. What's wrong with that picture? You were just defending turf, an ancient art if there ever was one." She finished her coffee.
Presently, Hamper and Barony came in. They wore nicer suits than before and wider cheese eating grins on their generic faces.
"OK son, you ready for the next phase? There's lots of changes that will be happening in your life from now on."
Barony slapped the darkly lacquered surface of the heavy office desk with a fresh sheath of papers. "New marching orders. To my great consternation, you've proven yourself a worthy corporate asset. So now it's payroll all the way."
"Yeah, the benefits are awesome. Raj will go over them with you. However, intel shows the other guys will keep at trying to obtain your apartment after all. We'll post another rookie there. Don't worry about it." It certainly didn't bother Hamper any.
"Where am I supposed to live?"
"Raj will brief you on that, and on quitting your current job."
"My current job...", I looked to Raj, who seemed even sexier than previously thought.
"You already quit. This morning."
Barony again: "Just sign the fucking employment papers so we can get back to eating breakfast. Or brunch, thanks a lot."
I did. The two men nodded at Raj, and took off. Not a single congratulatory word sent my way.
After they shifted off, Raj put her hand on my shoulder. She was clad in a tiny mini skirt and knee-high boots that morning. Made everything seem perfectly logical. "Let's go get you started on your new life, my friend."
"That's all we'll ever be. Anything more rambunctious gets in the way of order. Don't forget we're a management company."
We made for the elevators and ascended two levels. The doors whizzed open on pink-coated walls adorned with corporate posters and slogans. There was one of what I took to be a caveman bent over a small bonfire with kindling at hand. A tagline boasted "Ad Perpetua".
Raj paused in front of that one. "Look. Since Neolithic times there has been a need for proper management, which wasn't really possible until more modern conditions prevailed. Now with the so-called information age and all, it's a given. You're lucky to get a look behind the scenes."
"I'd like a look under your blouse."
"Don't be an idiot. Go home and flog the puppy, that ought to do the trick."
"Didn't the company take my home? I moved, last I heard."
"Oh but we gave you a new, much better one. All your stuff is already there. You'll love it. Come, supply is next."
As we approached big double doors with the letters S-U-P-P-L-Y stenciled huge over them, I realized the stars will from now on look down at a completely new me. I may be able to keep all the external manifestations of who I was, but my soul would forever be out of my jurisdiction.
We entered a large hall buzzing with white coat activity. Raj took me to one corner, tapping one of the backroom people on the back. It was a college kid, very young and mousy in an endearing sort of way. He readjusted a pair of expensive-looking glasses to sit higher on the ridge of his nose.
"Hello, you must be the new recruit. I'm Arrow, and I'll be signing you for a lot of stuff. I understand you already have your own place?"
I looked to Raj.
"Yes, he does. We also moved most of his old stuff there."
"Great, than we basically have to go over the big ticket items. What kind of car would you like?"
"Not with the cars again."
"Don't give him a hard time. I gotta go, be good." Raj took off, dialing someone up on her tiny cell phone. Bass-driven house music played in the background. To my astonishment, it was coming from a navy-blue BMW 760.
"You want a Beemer?", Arrow scribbled in his clipboard.
"No, no, not my style...you mean to tell me I get any car?"
"Yes. That's what selling your soul goes for these days. Among other things. So no BMW?"
The soundtrack lent a surreal mood to what we were doing in Supply. "How about a big Land Rover?"
"Certainly. Highest trim level is assumed. Color?"
"Won't that be hard to find?" I fidgeted with a little bauble on the workbench beside me.
"No. Sign this, please. Anything you'd like to add to your apartment?"
"What does it come with?"
"All the latest fixings. But you're allowed additions."
"No, I'll be fine."
"Come this way." Arrow took me to a large closet-like structure. It contained a full range of garments.
"These complement what you owned to date. Will it be sufficient?"
I never dreamed of having so much to wear. "I think yes."
"Great. Sign here, please."
Arrow then proceeded to go over a drilling list of purchases made on my behalf which included everything I ever fantasized about and never owned before, from a top-of-the-line PC, the latest game console, home entertainment, to a plasma TV the size of a skating rink and so much more. To be perfectly frank, it felt good. I sensed punch-drunk butterflies scurrying around inside.
My John Hancock followed suit, and ten minutes later I was back out on the street with Raj. She took me around the building and downstairs to a musky old garage full of cars, all luxury machines with a glistening veneer of freshly lathered carnauba wax that almost seemed unreal to the eye.
A peach Land Rover stood at one corner, looking innocuously quiet.
"There's your car. And here's a little something you'll require in the next few days. It's like a welcome package. You know, the kind they hand out to dour-faced seniors at a time-share."
"I'm not a senior, yet."
"Stop being a wise-ass. There's a little map that'll take you to your new apartment. Unless you prefer GPS. Personally, I'm old-fashioned."
"Map's fine. Will you be accompanying me?"
"No. Next time we meet will be a week from today, at the Winston Smith Cafe. You know where it is?"
"I think so. It's by the lake?"
"Say, Raj. Why is this really happening to me?"
"Because it's what you wanted. You were willing and we found you just in time. The life you led before, well, that's over with."
"Are you going back to work?"
"You mean the site? Hell no, they gave me a new assignment. Much better, thanks." She made to saunter off without even a goodbye.
"Oh, what about the other people I know? Can I still have friends from before?"
"They're your friends. You decide. It's all up to you, really. Later."
My oversized patio overlooked a neatly lit boulevard and its occasional flurry of traffic. They put me in a fashionably upscale yet non-tacky part of the city where sidewalks remained ever-clean and free of litter, my immortal enemy. Yes, litter. Call me nuts, but it used to drive me up the wall. As I stood in the company-conferred domicile, I recalled times when the city crawled with refuse. It was all gone lately.
"Did you notice how all the streets are always clean now?," I asked Douglass.
"Weren't they like that before?"
"Well, guess what isn't the same. The site. With you and Raj both gone to greener pastures it's just Dulcet Douglass against everybody else," he smiled.
"Hope you won't hold it against me. Didn't want to leave you to fend for yourself like that..."
"Nah, don't worry about it. I'd take this new consultant job in a heartbeat if it came up. Your cousin, dude, she sure pulled through for you. The real-estate deal AND the job. You're all set for life."
My cousin? Real-estate? For that matter I didn't recall ever telling Doug about no consultant position either. I didn't remember telling him anything about my newly found wealth.
I flicked the plasma TV on. A local network was on, reporting on book sales. Book sales?
Evening came late at the Winston Smith. Under a peerless whitewash sky, gentle breezes made the sycamore trees by the lake sway lazily. Leaves blew on the cobbled driveway winding around the Back Lakes, skidding between cuddling pedestrians, content cyclists and unhurried taxis. It was getting dark, and a waiter lit the candle on our window-side table. There was low-volume conversation all around us, but Raj didn't mind the ambient chatter. I was slightly nervous, despite the reassuring environment.
She pulled out another company folder. It was blue, and had "Equilibrium Ex Pendulum" written on the cover. In pink, 72 pt. print. Did I even like pink?
Raj held the folder so we could both read what it said. The white letters startled me.
"These were pink a second ago, I swear."
"Did they put something naughty in your cappucino?"
"No, Raj, I mean it."
"Who knows. The mind plays tricks on us all the time. You strike me as officious. Probably white seems more appropriate to you, correct?"
"Then why would it be pink? Anyway, let's move on." She sipped her drink. A cocktail.
Arrow walked into the Winston Smith, carrying a big backpack, and sat down to join us.
"There go my romantic intentions. Where did you come from?" I said rather acerbically.
"The office. This is what you'll need for your next job."
"Romantic intentions, eh? Sorry, but this will have to be a business relationship," said Raj while lighting a cigarette. "Ok, you keep the folder. Come on, take it."
I looked at the pages. A lot of talk about mass telecomm and such.
"You may be aware of the struggle going on between cable and satellite providers. The satellite operation we own, so it's high time to do something about those pesky cable guys. Your job is to cause some mischief. Get enough of their customers on the blink so they'll switch to us."
Arrow slid the backpack towards me under the table. I bent down and opened it. There were a few cutters and pliers inside, as well as a soldering kit and an object I believed was a motion detector or scanner of some persuasion.
"What am I, Bob Vila now?"
"Who?" asked Raj.
"Did he ever work for us?" Arrow looked at me incredulously.
"Never mind. What's the job?"
"You and several other operatives will each get a section of the city. Not more than a few blocks, to begin with. Using the scanners we provide, you'll go over buildings and cut any cable connections you can find. This'll give the other guys a royal pain in the ass to deal with. Remember, the company wants stealth this time, not brute force. There's no need to shoot anyone."
"What if I get caught?"
Raj was enjoying that cigarette a lot. "If it's really an emergency, use the silenced pistol we gave you in the welcome kit. If the cops show, run, there's no police coverage. This time the law will be real or theirs."
Arrow nodded, his spectacles bobbing in tandem. "Dude, this is one low-tech op. After you come back the next ones will get infinitely more interesting."
"Actually, I like the satellite TV you put in the downtown apartment. Especially the movie channels. They have a lot of science fiction most evenings."
"You're a sci-fi buff, aren't you?" said Raj encouragingly.
"Good then." She finished the cocktail and asked for another one. "Company's footing the bill. We'll tag it an executive outing."
"Shit, too bad I settled for a cappuccino." I really meant it. But then my wallet was full of cash, and their credit went a long way. Spending money wasn't an issue anymore.
Arrow didn't even order anything. It caught my eye.
"So, Arrow. How'd you end up with the company?"
"Oh, the truth was revealed to me back in college. After that, they simply recruited me once I graduated. Not like Raj and yourself."
"How are we different?"
"You had other stuff going on before, you didn't know management. I was groomed for this job earlier. They reimbursed all my tuition and expenses, paid off debtors and so forth, just to get my tech skills."
"Must be nice to have somebody want you that bad." I looked to Raj. She put out the ciggie in an oyster-shaped ashtray that was Made in China. She didn't return the glance.
People were leaving, and we still sat there, talking. Mostly neutral stuff, since the longer I shared time with those people the less I seemed to know about them. The sky was dark and starlit. Apparently the overcast dissipated. Crickets twinkled in the shrubbery outside our window, and cooler night air indulged couples huddled around small wooden tables in the front porch.
Raj was poking me. I was fixated with the lake's tranquil beauty.
"You with us?"
"Sorry, it's this place. Makes the mind drift away."
"You miss your old life? The site?"
"No, not now. Maybe later."
"Just don't miss it too much, or you'll get it back. Know what I mean?" added Arrow before getting up to leave. "You have all you need for the operation, so my job is done. I can go home and work on the next op."
"Interesting," noted Raj.
After she paid, we ended up walking together to our cars. The operation didn't start till the next evening.
"Wanna go somewhere?"
"I am, always, going somewhere. But not with you. Like I said, strictly business."
"But why? You got me into this mess, why can't you be a part of it?"
"I wouldn't call it a mess. Look deep inside and you'll see happiness down there for the first time ever. Am I wrong?"
"Alright then, good night."
I listened to her sportster vanish loudly into the pacified lakeside night. Water lapped gently against the promenade, and a little boat purred its way toward an islet that had colorful lights dancing around between lush trees. Faint sounds of laughter and music reached my ears. I wanted badly to be on that island. But the boat wasn't there.
It was Lincolntown for me and a few other operatives. Starting at 11PM, we went from building to building, pointing scanners at cables and snipping those that showed positive for hostile transmission. According to the folder Raj gave me, everyone we cut off was liable to call the satellite company in the morning. I never even questioned that.
Things were going smoothly. I heard people crying out in bewilderment when their broadcast went out, but not more. No cops, no major pains in the ass. As Arrow said, very low-tech. I felt like a janitor mopping up the same spot again and again to keep the bosses happy.
I traced a line to the basement level of this older apartment building. There was no intercom, so getting access to the guy's door was easy. The cable went to the top of the door, then drilled its way into the apartment. I just cut it at that point and walked away.
Somebody moved inside immediately. As I climbed the few stairs to get away, the door opened behind me.
"Hey, asshole, come back here!"
I contemplated running for a split-second.
"Don't run, I'm with the company."
"Your company, the management company. You think this is the first time they sent someone by mistake?" he yelled.
"Keep your voice down!" I hissed.
"It's OK, I'm the only one here. Whole building's a fraud. Just a cover, really. Get you scrawny ass over here, kid." He went back inside.
With my hand on the butt of their silenced gun, I crept into his apartment. He was standing there, under a pale light.
"Relax. Are you a rookie?"
"Yes, this is my second assignment. You have some ID?"
"Oh, I have an idea or two. Here, catch." He threw a corporate badge at me. Badges only went with veteran employees. "Name's Sebastian."
"What are you doing here? Why do you have hostile transmission reaching into your apartment?" I asked timidly.
"That's the whole point kid. I'm a janitor. My Job's keeping a close watch on what our so-called rivals have to say, and compare it to what we produce."
"So you monitor both feeds?" I asked.
"Did, until Your Excellency materialized out of nowhere on your wild goose chase. Now I'm stuck with a decidedly one sided proposition. Not good. Not good at all." He was shaking his head resignedly.
"Well, can't you just plug right back into their grid?"
Sebastian put on a more dire expression. "Not so easy. Once the cable's cut, there's no easy way to go back. We crossed a threshold when you snipped that wire, son. You cancelled the other option. Now it's either stay in it for the long run, or get the fuck out while you can."
"What do you mean? Are you talking about me quitting the company?"
"Shit yeah. Let me show you something."
He took me to his bedroom, only instead of a bed there stood, or more like it, hovered, a large spherical object that should have been humming ominously but didn't.
"It doesn't hum." I said.
"That's it? That's all you gonna say? Boy, you're so precious I want to cry. You're looking at your inner being, son. The very fiber of your moral and mortal self. You think they sent you on a cable cutting mission? Even you can't be that stupid. This was a choice, a sort of test, if you will." He moved over to the kitchen and put some eggs on the stovetop. "This whole song and dance about management companies was a lure. You sold your soul, boy. Like millions before you. Now they really own you. Want an egg? They'll be hot and ready in just a few."
"No, thanks...but, but...what about all the people we cut off cable tonight?"
"What people? This whole part of town was made up for this kind of mission. Mission my behind. It's a testing ground. Tomorrow somebody else will burn their bridge to lives past, but it won't be cable. Maybe a paper route. Or Mail carriers. Who the hell knows? There's tons of metaphors they could use. It's the end result that counts."
"But could I not sell my soul, as you said it? They gave me the mission, I had to do it."
"Always follow orders, eh? Well, you finally got it, or part of it. There's no alternative, it's rigged. A perfunctory ritual. Like in every self-respecting autocracy."
"No choice, pal. You signed those papers, and the sphere don't hum. Pretty soon it won't even be here no more. Pretty soon I'll be gone."
"Nowhere, somewhere. Maybe Haiti or Micronesia. Should be nice enough places for a man to retire from worldly concerns. They won't need me, you won't need me. I said my piece, and you know now. The sphere was you, but will imminently be no more. There won't be any need for it to hover here like a dumb toy with no particular function. And you'll be a true company dude."
I scratched my head. I was getting a splitting headache.
"But you said I can get out if I wanted?"
"Always an option, if you're willing to pay the price."
"Your life, your existence, your sanity. Or maybe just merely inconsequential things like your happiness and well-being. They can guarantee you will never be happy again, ever. Not a single shred of it from the second you quit to the day you die. Maybe even after, I kid you not. Heh." He peeled and swallowed an egg, loudly.
"I wasn't too happy before I knew about the company."
"You think that. It's not true. There was always hope. Even if you never felt it, it was there. And you can't imagine what not feeling it will be like, because it is unimaginable. But they can do it for you. Leave you a hopeless husk, with a void in your soul that could never be filled. Probably not a very good thing, sonny boy."
I was in it for the long haul. At least there was hope, like he said. At least there was Raj.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I'll get ready for when this lovely trinket croaks once and for all. Don't worry, you don't need it anymore. You're company now. Happy or not, but you're theirs. Anyway, I got some eggs to eat and less TV to watch, thank you. Don't look me up if you're in trouble, and so on." He prodded me toward the door.
Without saying goodbye, I went out on the street again, and walked all the way back to my car. It was parked there, wearing the right color. Not that I knew what right was anymore. Sitting behind the wheel, I mulled what Sebastian said over. Forty minutes later, I made up my mind to go see him again. This time the building did seem deserted. The lights I could have sworn were in people's windows were gone, like gouged-out eyes looking at you pleadingly. It was deathly quiet all of a sudden. I felt like a traitor to my soul. Not a sound from Sebastian's apartment. After ten minutes of pounding on his door, I gave up and left.
We sat at the Winston Smith again, Raj and I. She had another folder held in front of her beautiful face when I trounced over, almost falling head over heels, to the window-side table where the unrequited, unconscious love of my life was placed. There were two Coronas and some of those grainy, coated snacks at hand.
"Cheers." Raj lifted one of the gold-tinged bottles up, letting it glimmer in front of the rain-dripped window pane. Tree branches waved back and forth across our field of view, occasionally obscuring paddle-boats carrying loving couples to points on the windy lake's autumnal shores.
"What are we celebrating?"
"Seems like it'll never end. I keep passing tests and moving to the next step, only to come up against another pop quiz."
"Life though progression. You talked to Sebastian, didn't you?"
"There you go, then. That was another leap of faith that needed to be out of the way. You now realize more than was realized beforehand."
"I'm not sure..."
"Never mind, drink."
"Shouldn't we wait for Arrow?" I said.
"No gadgets for your upcoming assignment. It's a kick job. Assassination. We'll go back to the office before you leave and pick up certain contraptions that may come in handy."
She wasn't here to socialize or toast.
"OK, why the fuck not? Who's my unsuspecting target this time?"
"Very suspecting, that's who. A top enemy general down south. His troops have been aiding rival firms for some time, and we need to spread panicky distrust among their ranks. Piece of cake. What's that awful racket?"
There was a persistent knocking sound coming from somewhere. It went on and on, probably even before Raj noticed.
"Hello, mister, you awake in there?"
Someone asked from behind the door. They didn't wait for me to answer.
A nurse came in, carrying a small tray with pills and bottled water. I saw the pills right away for their bright colors.
"Time for your meds," said the nurse.
I was in a hospital bed, and my hands both hurt real bad. There was an acidy after taste in my mouth, and nausea lurked behind each eye
He was holding out the pills and water, waiting for me to take them.
"You've been out for some time, but now the doctors think you're finally coming back. Must have been some adventure in there, eh?"
I thought he meant my head.
"What are you giving me?"
"These pills will make you bounce back to health in no time. Couldn't dish them out while you were out."
"What's the rush? I feel like tractors did practice donuts all over me." I felt the soft, comforting sheet pulling me away from a speedy recovery.
The nurse glimmered with excitement. "There's lots of work for you to do, friend. Lots of good work waiting to get done."