Essay #4- Literary Analysis
Due: November 22, 2020 (Submit to turnitin.com)
Prompt: In Jennifer Government, author Max Barry takes readers on a journey through an alternate reality where corporations are king, taxes are abolished, and the government can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Write a five to six page thesis-driven literary analysis in which you analyze how Barry uses figurative language to connect a particular character, motif, or symbol to one of the themes (such as C.R.E.A.M., guerrilla marketing, conspicuous consumption, wage slavery, globalization, or outsourcing) in the novel. Use at least three sources from class (texts, documentaries, songs) to illustrate and support your logical reasons.
The purpose of a literary analysis essay is to carefully examine and sometimes evaluate a work of literature or an aspect of a work of literature. As with any analysis, this requires you to break the subject down into its component parts. Examining the different elements of a piece of literature is not an end in itself but rather a process to help you better appreciate and understand the work of literature as a whole.
Common Outline for a Literary Analysis
Introduction and Thesis Statement
What is the current situation of the topic? What problem motivated the writer to produce the text? Why is this problem important (why should we care about it)? State your thesis.
List and describe the “rhetorical situation”of this novel. What is the issue/problem at stake? Who is the writerof the text and how does their background and experience on the subject influence their message? Who is the intended audience? What values and beliefs would readers have to hold to be persuaded by the message? What is the genreof the text?
Provide a brief summary of the message to help readers get a sense of what’s going on in the text. What is the setting of the text? What is the central theme? What motifs, symbols, and imagery does the author use to illustrate this theme? Who are the central characters of the novel? How do these characters function in relation to the theme of the novel?
Reasons and evidence
Exemplify your position logically and effectively. Your evidence should be relevant and supportive of your point, not simply an interesting fact. It should come from credible sources. And it should especially be interrogated and linked to your central idea.
Provide a statement that urges awareness among readers, a statement that looks ahead to the future, or call the readers to take specific action.
There are a lot of real company names and trademarks in this book, most in situations you are unlikely to see on the covers of any annual reports. That’s because this is a novel, and the things that happen in it aren’t true. This may seem obvious enough to you, but some people (whom we shall call “lawyers”) get very uptight when you describe large corporations masterminding murders. So let’s be clear: this is a work of fiction. The actions depicted are not real nor based on real events. Any resemblance to actual people is coincidental. And the use of real company and product names is for literary effect only and definitely without permission.
Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water-cooler. He was only there because the one on his floor was out; Le-gal was going to come down on Nature’s Springs like a ton of shit, you could bet on that. Hack was a Merchandise Distribution Of-ficer. This meant when Nike made up a bunch of posters, or caps, or beach towels, Hack had to send them to the right place. Also, if someone called up complaining about missing posters, or caps, or beach towels, Hack had to take the call. It wasn’t as exciting as it used to be.
“It’s a calamity” a man at the watercooler said. “Four days away from launch and Jennifer Government’s all over my ass.”
“Jee-sus,” his companion said. “That’s gotta suck.” “It means we have to move fast.” He looked at Hack, who was filling his cup. “Hi there.” Hack looked up. They were smiling at him as if he was an equal—but of course, Hack was on the wrong floor. They didn’t know he was just a Merc Officer. “Hi.”
“Haven’t seen you around before,” the calamity guy said. “You new?” “No. I work in Merc.”
“Oh.” His nose wrinkled. “Our cooler’s out,” Hack said. He turned away quickly. “Hey, wait up,” the suit said. “You ever do any marketing work?”
“Uh,” he said, not sure if this was a joke. “No.” The suits looked at each other. The calamity guy shrugged. Then they stuck out their hands. “I’m John Nike, Guerrilla Mar-keting Operative, New Products.” “And I’m John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Vice-President, New Products,” the other suit said. “Hack Nike,” Hack said, shaking.
“Hack, I’m empowered to make midrange labor-contracting decisions,” Vice-President John said. “You interested in some work?” “Some . . .” He felt his throat thicken. “Marketing work?” “On a case-by-case basis, of course,” the other John said. Hack started to cry.
There,” a John said, handing him a handkerchief. “You feel better?” Hack nodded, shamed. “I’m sorry.” “Hey, don’t worry about it,” Vice-President John said. “Ca-reer change can be very stressful. I read that somewhere.” “Here’s the paperwork.” The other John handed him a pen and a sheaf of papers. The first page said CONTRACT TO PER-FORM SERVICE, and the others were in type too small to read. Hack hesitated. “You want me to sign this now?” “It’s nothing to worry about. Just the usual noncompetes and nondisclosure agreements.” “Yeah, but. . .” Companies were getting a lot tougher on labor contracts these days; Hack had heard stories. At Adidas, if you quit your job and your replacement wasn’t as competent, they sued you for lost profits. “Hack, we need someone who can make snap decisions. A fast mover.” “Someone who can get things done. With a minimum of fucking around.” “If that’s not your style, well. . . let’s forget we spoke. No harm done. You stick to Merchandising.” Vice President John reached for the contract. “I can sign it now,” Hack said, tightening his grip. “It’s totally up to you,” the other John said. He took the chair beside Hack, crossed his legs, and rested his hands at the juncture, smiling. Both Johns had good smiles, Hack noticed. He guessed everyone in marketing did. They had pretty similar faces, too. “Just at the bottom there.” Hack signed. “Also there,” the other John said. “And on the next page . . . and one there. And there.” “Glad to have you on board, Hack.” Vice-President John took the contract, opened a drawer, and dropped it inside. “Now. What do you know about Nike Mercurys?”
Hack blinked. “They’re our latest product. I haven’t actually seen a pair, but… I heard they’re great.” The Johns smiled. “We started selling Mercurys six months ago. You know how many pairs we’ve shifted since then?”
Hack shook his head. They cost thousands of dollars a pair, but that wouldn’t stop people from buying them. They were the hottest sneakers in the world. “A million?”
“Two hundred.” “Two hundred million?” “No. Two hundred pairs.” ‘John here,” the other John said, “pioneered the concept of marketing by refusing to sell any products. It drives the market insane.”
“And now it’s time to cash in. On Friday we’re gonna dump four hundred thousand pairs on the market at two and a half grand each.”
“Which, since they cost us—what was it?” “Eighty-five.”
“Since they cost us eighty-five cents to manufacture, gives us a gross margin of around one billion dollars.” He looked at Vice-President John. “It’s a brilliant campaign.” “It’s really just common sense,” John said. “But here’s the thing, Hack: if people realize every mall in the country’s got Mercurys, we’ll lose all that prestige we’ve worked so hard to build. Am I right?” “Yeah.” Hack hoped he sounded confident. He didn’t really understand marketing.
“So you know what we’re going to do?” He shook his head.
“We’re going to shoot them,” Vice-President John said. “We’re going to kill anyone who buys a pair.” Silence. “What?” Hack said.
The other John said, “Well, not everyone, obviously. We fig-ure we only have to plug . . . what did we decide? Five?”
“Ten,” Vice-President John said. “To be safe.” “Right. We take out ten customers, make it look like ghetto kids, and we’ve got street cred coming out our asses. I bet we shift our inventory within twenty-four hours.”
“I remember when you could always rely on those little street kids to pop a few people for the latest Nikes,” Vice-President John said. “Now people get mugged for Reeboks, for Adidas—for genetics, for Christ’s sake.” “The ghettos have no fashion sense anymore,” the other John said. “I swear, they’ll wear anything.”
“It’s a disgrace. Anyway, Hack, I think you get the point. This is a groundbreaking campaign.” “Talk about edgy,” the other John said. “This defines edgy.”
“Um . . .” Hack said. He swallowed. “Isn’t this kind of… il-legal?” “He wants to know if it’s illegal,” the other John said, amused. “You’re a funny guy, Hack. Yes, it’s illegal, killing people without their consent, that’s very illegal.”
Vice-President John said, “But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more . . . bottom-line, we’re still way out in front.” Hack had a question he very much didn’t want to ask. “So . . . this contract. . . what does it say I’ll do?” The John beside him folded his hands. “Well, Hack, we’ve explained our business plan. What we want you to do is. . .” “Execute it,” Vice-President John said.
Until she stood in front of them, Hayley didn’t realize how many of her classmates were blond. It was like a beach out there. She’d missed the trend. Hayley would have to hotfoot it to a hair-dresser after school. “When you’re ready,” the teacher said.
She looked at her note cards and took a breath. “Why I Love America, by Hayley McDonald’s. America is the greatest group of countries in the world because we have freedom. In countries like France, where the Government isn’t privatized, they still have to pay tax and do whatever the Government says, which would really suck. In USA countries, we respect individual rights and let peo-ple do whatever they want.”
The teacher jotted something in his folder. McDonald’s-sponsored schools were cheap like that: at Pepsi schools, everyone had notebook computers. Also their uniforms were much better. It was so hard to be cool with the Golden Arches on your back.
“Before USA countries abolished tax, if you didn’t have a job, the Government took money from working people and gave it to you. So, like, the more useless you were, the more money you got.” No response from her classmates. Even the teacher didn’t smile. Hayley was surprised: she’d thought that one was a crack-up. “But now America has all the best companies and all the money because everyone works and the Government can’t spend money on stupid things like advertising and elections and making new laws. They just stop people stealing or hurting each other and everything else is taken care of by the private sector, which every-one knows is more efficient.” She looked at her notes: yep, that was it. “Finally I would like to say that America is the greatest group of countries in the world and I am proud to live in the Aus-tralian Territories of the USA!” A smattering of applause. It was the eighth talk this period: she guessed it was getting harder to work up enthusiasm for capitalizm. Hayley headed for her seat.
“Hold it,” the teacher said. “I have questions.” “Oh,” Hayley said.
“Are there any positive aspects to tax?”
She relaxed: a gimme question. “Some people say tax is good because it gives money to people who don’t have any. But those people must be lazy or stupid, so why should they get other people’s money? Obviously the answer is no.”
The teacher blinked. He made a note. That must have been an impressive answer, Hayley thought. “What about social jus-tice?” “What?” “Is it fair that some people should be rich while others have nothing?” She shifted from one foot to the other. She was just remem-bering: this teacher had a thing about poor people. He was always bringing them up. “Um, yeah, it’s fair. Because if I study really hard for a test and get an A and Emily doesn’t and fails”—renewed interest from the class; Emily raised blond eyebrows—”then it’s not fair to take some of my marks and give them to her, is it?”
The teacher frowned. Hayley felt a flash of panic. “Another thing, in non-USA countries they want everyone to be the same, so if your sister is born blind, then they blind you, too, to make it even. But how unfair is that? I would much rather be an Ameri-can than a European Union . . . person.” She gave the class a big smile. They clapped, much more enthusiastically than before. She added hopefully, “Is that all?” “Yes. Thank you.” Relief! She started walking. A cute boy in the third row winked at her. The teacher said, “Although, Hayley, they don’t really blind people in non-USA countries.” Hayley stopped. “Well, that’s kind of hypocritical, isn’t it?”
The class cheered. The teacher opened his mouth, then shut it. Hayley took her seat. Kick ass, she thought. She had aced this test.
Hack sat in traffic, biting his nails. This had not been a good day. He was beginning to think that visiting the marketing floor for a cup of water was the worst mistake he’d ever made.
He turned into a side street and parked his Toyota. It raided angrily and let loose a puff of black smoke. Hack really needed a new car. Maybe if this job paid off, he could move out of St. Kilda. He could get an apartment with some space, maybe some natural light—
He shook his head angrily. What was he thinking? He wasn’t going to shoot anyone. Not even for a better apartment.
He climbed the stairs to the second floor and let himself in. Violet was sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor with her notebook computer in her lap. Violet was his girlfriend. She was the only unemployed person he had ever met, not counting homeless people who asked him for money. She was an entrepreneur. Violet was probably going to be rich one day: she was smart and determined. Sometimes Hack wasn’t sure why they were together.
He dropped his briefcase and shrugged off his jacket. The table was littered with bills. Hack hadn’t bargained very well in his last performance evaluation and it was really biting him now. “Violet?” “Mmm?” “Can we talk?” “Is it important?” “Yes.”
She frowned. Hack waited. Violet didn’t like being disturbed during her work. She didn’t like being disturbed at all. She was short and thin and had long brown hair, which made her look much more fragile than she was. “What’s up?”
He sat on the sofa. “I did something stupid.” “Oh, Hack, not again.”
Hack had missed a couple of turnoffs on the way home lately: last Tuesday he’d gotten himself onto a premium road and eaten through eleven dollars in tolls before he found an exit. “No, something really stupid.” “What happened?” “Well, I got offered some work . . . some marketing work—” “That’s great! We could really use the extra money.” “—and I signed a contract without reading it.”
Pause. “Oh,” Violet said. “Well, it might be okay—” “It says I have to kill people. It’s some kind of promotional campaign. I have to, um, kill ten people.” For a moment she said nothing. He hoped she wasn’t going to shout at him. “I’d better look at that contract.” He dropped his head.
“You don’t have a copy?” “No.”
“Oh, Hack.” “I’m sorry.” Violet chewed her lip. “Well, you can’t go through with it. The Government’s not as pussy as people think. They’d get you for sure. But then, you don’t know what the penalties in that con-tract are … I think you should go to the Police.”
“Really?” “There’s a station on Chapel Street. When are you meant to … do it?” “Friday.” “You should go. Right now.”
“Okay. You’re right.” He picked up his jacket. “Thanks, Violet.” “Why does this kind of thing always happen to you, Hack?” “I don’t know,” he said. He felt emotional. He shut the door carefully behind him.
The station was only a few blocks away, and as it came into view he began to feel hopeful. The building was lit up in blue neon, with THE POLICE in enormous letters and a swirling light above that. If anyone could help him out of this situation, it would be someone who worked in a place like this.
The doors slid open and he walked up to the reception desk. A woman in uniform—either a real cop or a receptionist dressed in theme, Hack didn’t know which—smiled. Playing over the PA system was the song from their TV ads, “Every Breath You Take.”
“Good evening, how can I help you?” “I have a matter I’d like to discuss with an officer, please.” “May I ask the nature of your problem?” “Um,” he said. “I’ve been contracted to kill someone. Some people, actually.” The receptionist’s eyebrows rose a fraction, then settled. Hack felt relieved. He didn’t want to be chastised by the recep-tionist. “Take a seat, sir. An officer will be right with you.”
Hack dropped into a soft blue chair and waited. A few min-utes later, a cop came out and stopped in front of him. Hack rose.
“I’m Senior Sergeant Pearson Police,” the man said. He shook Hack’s hand firmly. He had a small, trim mustache but oth-erwise looked pretty capable. “Please accompany me.”
Hack followed him down a plushly carpeted hallway to a small, professional-looking meeting room. On the wall were pic-tures of cops escorting crims out of buildings, in front of court-houses, and busting protestor heads outside some corporate building. As Pearson took a seat, Hack caught a glimpse of hand-cuffs and a pistol.
“So what’s your problem?” He flipped open a notebook. Hack told him the whole story. When he was done, Pearson was silent for a long time. Finally Hack couldn’t take it anymore. “What do you think?”
Pearson pressed his fingers together. “Well, I appreciate you coming forward with this. You did the right thing. Now let me take you through your options.” He closed the notebook and put it to one side. “First, you can go ahead with this Nike contract. Shoot some people. In that case, what we’d do, if we were retained by the Government or one of the victims’ representatives, is attempt to apprehend you.”
“Yes.” “And we would apprehend you, Hack. We have an eighty-six percent success rate. With someone like you,
inexperienced, no backing, we’d have you within hours. So I strongly recommend you do not carry out this contract.” “I know,” Hack said. “I should have it read it, but—” “Second, you can refuse to go through with it. That would expose you to whatever penalties are in that contract. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you they could be harsh. Very harsh indeed.”
Hack nodded. He hoped Pearson wasn’t finished. “Here’s your alternative.” Pearson leaned forward. “You subcontract the slayings to us. We fulfill your contract, at a very competitive rate. As you probably know from our advertisements, your identity is totally protected. If the Government comes after us, it’s not your problem.”
Hack said, “That’s my only alternative?” “Well, if you had a copy of the contract, I’d tell you to go talk to our Legal branch. But you don’t, do you?” “Um, no.” He hesitated. “How much would it be to . . .”
Pearson blew out his cheeks. “Depends. You don’t need spe-cific individuals done, right? Just people who buy these Mercury shoes.”
“Yes.” “Well, that’s cheaper. We can make sure we don’t take out anyone with means. For, you know, retribution. And you need ten capped, so there’s a bulk discount. We could do this for, say, one-fifty.”
“One-fifty what?” “Grand,” Pearson said. “One-fifty grand, Hack, what do you think?” He felt despair. “I’m a Merc Officer, I earn thirty-three a year—” “Come on, now,” Pearson said, looking pained. “Don’t start that.” “I’m sorry.” His vision blurred. Twice in one day! He was falling apart. “Look, final offer: one-thirty. You can go talk to the NRA but you won’t get better than that, I promise. Now do we have a deal?” “Yes,” Hack said. He wiped angrily at his face as Pearson began to draw up the contract.
The alarm clock said: “—and rumors of strong profits. Microsoft tumbled to twenty-two after the company announced shipping delays would…”
Buy couldn’t breathe. His chest ached. He thought: I’m hav-ing a heart attack! Then he remembered. No. Not a heart attack.
He staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. His face stared back at him. It didn’t look impressed. He said, “I am a great person. Today is a great day.”
Taped to a corner of the mirror was a piece of paper. It said:
I AM A GREAT PERSON
TODAY IS A GREAT DAY
EVERY OBSTACLE IS AN OPPORTUNITY
It was Monday, October 27, and therefore the fifth-last working day of Mitsui Corporation’s financial year. Buy was an Account Manager, Competitive Accounts Group, Southern Re-gion, which meant he was a stockbroker, which meant he was a salesman. He had a $4.2 million quota. That hadn’t looked like a problem after an outstanding first quarter and a solid Q2, but in Q3 they’d reorganized some accounts away from him, and Q4 had been terrible, a catastrophe. Buy had five days to find half a million dollars. He showered and padded out to the living room. His apart-ment looked over the ExxonMobil Botanical Gardens and beyond that the city of Melbourne, USA (Australia). It was a little after six, and the office towers were flaring orange in the dawn sun. The sky was a solid blue expanse. Buy had stopped seeing it in Q3.
He ate toast and washed it down with juice. He dressed and caught the elevator to the parking lot, where his Jeep was waiting for him. Jeeps were one of the safest vehicles on the road, Buy had read; safe for people in the Jeep, anyway. He roared out onto the street.
The cheap roads were clogged, even at six-thirty, but he was only four blocks from a premium Bechtel freeway and that was eight lanes, two dollars a mile, and no speed limit. He sped past office buildings and factories with the needle on 95 mph.
He pulled into the Mitsui parking lot and caught the eleva-tor to the sixth-floor cube farm. Brokers didn’t get proper offices, or even walls above shoulder height, at least not in Competitive Accounts. In his first year here, Buy had been grateful for that, be-cause it was so easy to turn to a coworker for help. Now it annoyed him, for the same reason.
Hamish, who ran the night shift from Buy’s desk, was pulling off his headphones. “Hey, Buy.” “Hey.” Hamish looked relaxed and happy. Buy felt a flash of jealousy. “How’s the market?” “Even jumpier than you. Take it easy, buddy. You’ll get there.” “Yeah, I know.” He tried to sound sincere. Hamish patted him on the back and left for what was no doubt a day of lying on the sofa watching football, or activities equally casual and stress-free. Hamish had made quota six weeks ago, and Buy was finding it harder and harder to not hate him.
Buy slid into the seat, plugged in his telephone headset, and dialed. Taped to his cubicle wall was a note he’d written in Q1:
SUCCESS = 500 CALLS PER DAY
He stared at it while his client’s phone rang. Buy was start-ing to think that success was a big crapshoot. In France, he wouldn’t be in a position like this. Of course, in France he wouldn’t have received last year’s paycheck of $347,000, either. That was why he’d left: the EU was a socialist morass, with taxes and unemployment and public everything. Un-til recently, Buy had thought that moving to a USA country was the best move he’d ever made, with the possible exception of changing his name from Jean-Paul.
“You’ve reached Michael Microsoft, Project Manager Business Solu-tions Division. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Buy started rambling about market indicators pointing to in-creasing volatility, clicking through his e-mail at the same time. There was a message from a friend who now worked for US Al-liance, one of the big customer loyalty programs:
A priest and a stockbroker meet at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter gives the broker a golden harp and silk robes and lets him into Heaven. Then he gives the priest a rusty trumpet and some old rags. The priest says, “Hey, how come the stockbroker gets the harp and robes?” And Saint Peter says, “Because while you preached, people slept—but his clients, now, they prayed.” —Sami. P.S. We just passed 200 million subscribers at US Al-liance and are about to sign on the NRA (still hush-hush). But I guess that’s not as exciting as making monkey trades for Mitsui, huh?
Buy looked at his watch. It was noon in L.A. He hung up on Michael Microsoft’s voice mail and dialed. “Sami UA.”
“Are you serious about NRA?” “Buy! How you doing?” “You don’t want to know.” “Yeah, I’m very serious. You have no idea how fast things are moving here.” “You know what will happen to NRA’s stock price if they sign with US Alliance?” “Gee, I don’t know, Buy. I’m not a stockbroker anymore.”
He felt a rush of gratitude. “Thank you, Sami.” “Wait. You can’t use this information. It’s company confi-dential.” Buy paused. “Are you—”
“Come on,” Sami said. “You know I have to say that. You’ve had a rough year, right? Maybe things will turn around for you.” He hung up. For a second, Buy felt paralyzed. There were too many things he needed to do at once. Fifteen years ago, this would have been insider trading, but that quaint concept had disappeared a decade or two ago when so many brokers were doing it that it was impossible to jail them all. Now it was called smart trading.
He tucked the phone under his ear, hit SPEED DIAL 1, and started tapping out an e-mail. “Jason Mutual Unity.”
Buy said, “I’m calling because you’re my best client. I have some information that’s going to make a lot of people a lot of money and I want you to be one of them.” At the same time, he tapped out:
IF YOU WANT TO RIDE A WAVE CALL ME RIGHT NOW
He dragged his entire client list into the address field and hit SEND. “Buy, I just stepped out of the shower.”
“Tell me you’ve got liquid.” “What am I, a day-trader? Which company?” “National Rifle Association.” “The NRA? Are they even listed?” “Jason,” Buy said, “everyone’s listed.” “I don’t know … I’d have to sell out of another position. Look, tell you what, leave it with me—” “There’s no time. You know how this works. The first fish to take a bite will stir up the sharks.” “I’m sorry, Buy. We don’t operate like this.”
He heard himself say: “I’ll forfeit the commission.” “What?”
“If the stock doesn’t rise, I’ll eat the commission.” He swal-lowed. He was pretty sure he wasn’t allowed to do that. He was pretty sure that if the NRA ticker price fell, Mitsui would both fire and sue him. “Give me at least twenty million and I’ll take no commission unless you make money.”
“Are you serious?” The commission on twenty million dollars was four hundred thousand. He thought, October 27, October 27. “Very serious.” “Well, fuck,” Jason said. “You’ve got yourself a deal, buddy.” “Thank you,” Buy said. He closed his eyes. His chest still hurt.
“I found your presentations to be uniformly disappointing,” the teacher said. He was leaning against his desk, arms folded. Every time he turned his head, his glasses reflected sunlight at Hayley, as if he was shooting rays of disapproval. “I recommend that you all improve the level of your critical thinking.”
He began walking between aisles, dropping papers onto desks. Hayley saw a D, and an F; a little guy with glasses got a C-. She exhaled. This was not going to be good.
She heard whispering behind her and turned. Three girls were huddled together. When they saw Hayley looking, they closed tighter.
A paper landed on her desk. There was a lot of red pen, with words like superficial. At the bottom: F. Hayley raised her hand. “Why do I get an F for saying capitalizm is good when that’s what everyone else says too? It’s not fair.” “Hayley, what’s not fair is that our society rewards selfish-ness. That’s not fair.” So move to China, Hayley thought. “You should know I’ll be challenging this grade.” The McDonald’s curriculum panel wouldn’t let this crap stand, you could bet your ass.
“I don’t think it’s fair, either,” a boy to Hayley’s left said. “My parents say you have to understand how capitalizm works to get ahead. That self-interest is a good thing. Shouldn’t you be prepar-ing us for the real world?”
“Mercurys,” one of the whispering girls said. Hayley turned around again. “What did you say about Mer-curys?” They looked at her, their faces guarded. “The Nike Town at the mall is getting in some Mercurys.” Hayley’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious?”
“Thanks to self-interest” the teacher said, “it’s legal to let a person starve to death in the street while you drive past in your Mercedes. Is that fair?” “We heard five pairs.” “No way\ When?” Hayley gripped the desk. “When are they getting the Mercurys?” “Tonight. Six-thirty.” The girl glanced at her friends. “Want to meet us there?” “Oh, yeah!” She felt faint and sick all at once. Mercurys were two and a half thousand dollars, and Hayley didn’t have that much, but she could borrow: there were ATMs at the mall. It would be totally worth it; Mercurys weren’t just cool shoes; they were an investment. She could sell them tomorrow for twice what she bought them for, maybe more. What if—what if she could get two pairs?
“It’s very disappointing,” the teacher said, “that none of you can see past simple consumerism. Very disappointing.”
Mercurys, Hayley thought. Oh my God.
Billy Bechtel built tanks. Big ones. They had caterpillar treads and cannons on the front and swiveling machine guns; they were fucking impressive, was what they were. When anyone asked what Billy did for a living, he said, “You know the Bechtel military yards, outside Abilene? I work there,” and watched their eyebrows jump. It got so Billy started wishing his job was as cool as it sounded.
Billy’s job was to check steel plates to make sure they weren’t buckled. How it worked was a forklift came and dumped a load of plates in his area, then Billy checked them with a metal ruler, then another forklift came and carted them away. If he found any warped ones, they went in a separate pile, and when Billy showed up for work the next day, they were gone. Most of the guys on the Bechtel site worked in teams, but Billy was stuck on his own. It was driving him nuts.
After he’d been there a few months, he let a plate with a pucker at the edge go through, just to see what would happen, but nothing did. Someone was now driving around a tank that leaked when it rained, he guessed. After that he let a plate go through that was almost bent in half, and a guy from welding came and yelled at him. He took up smoking so he could hang around with some of the other workers, and that’s where he met the shooters. There were ten or twelve of them, and they met after day shift three times a week. “You should come along,” one of them told Billy, looking him up and down. Billy was young and blond and worked out a lot. “You’ll have fun.”
So Billy went, and it was fun. He also discovered he was a good shot. He had done some hunting as a kid growing up on a farm, but then his dad died and his mom moved them to Dallas and there hadn’t been much call for shooting after that. Until now, where on the back blocks of the Bechtel Military Abilene site, Billy earned the respect and admiration of his coworkers by clock-ing torso-shaped targets from farther out than anyone else. Things were good then. Sometimes even the forklift drivers stopped to talk to him.
Then came the bad news. The foreman gathered them all in Hangar One, among the scaffolding and half assembled tanks, and a guy from Head Office, some guy in a suit, said, “Unfortu-nately, due to cost pressures. . .” Then there was a lot of stuff about competition and efficiencies and how painful it was for management to make tough decisions. But what it came down to, the workers agreed afterward, was: You can all fuck off now. Billy was out of a job.
They gathered out front and stood around uncertainly. They bitched about management and wondered what they would do now; some of them talked bitterly about the days when there were unions, when shit like this wasn’t tolerated. One of the shooters clapped Billy on the shoulder and said, “What about you, champ? What are you going to do?”
“I think I’m gonna go away somewhere,” Billy said, surpris-ing himself. True, he had enough saved up for a working holiday, and he had always wanted to travel outside of Texas, but that was a long-term goal, of the sort he’d never expected to actually accomplish. This shooting thing had really developed his self-confidence. “I always wanted to go skiing, you know? Maybe I’ll go somewhere and learn how to ski.” The man roared with laughter. “Hey, get this! Billy the Kid is going skiing!”
The men around him erupted. Hands clapped him on the back. “Good on ya, Billy!” someone said, and someone else said, “We should all go fuckin’ skiing!” They thought it was terrific, Billy realized: they thought he was sticking it to Bechtel manage-ment. For a construction worker in Abilene, Texas, skiing was about as exotic as you could get. It was like going to Disneyland.
“That’s the way, Billy the Kid,” the man said. “You learn to ski.”
He thought he’d go to Sweden, because of the ski bunnies. He imagined days of riding steep white slopes by day, and gentle white curves at night. But the travel agent told him it was impos-sible to work there: Sweden was a non-USA country. Billy couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even think countries like that existed any-more. “Oh, sure,” the agent said, who was a girl Billy had dated in high school. She still chewed gum. “There are plenty. Mostly places you don’t wanna go, of course.”
“So where can I go?” “How about Singapore? Singapore’s real nice. I can get you a great price on—” “Not Singapore,” Billy said. He was pretty sure this travel agency had some kind of deal with Singapore; they tried to talk everyone into visiting. “I need somewhere with mountains. I want to go skiing.”
“Skiing?” Her eyes widened. “Yeah.” “Wow. Okay, then.” She poked at her computer. “Well, there’s Alaska, that’s right up north. And Canada, of course.”
Billy was hoping for something more exotic. “Anything far-ther away?” “Okay, lemme see here.” Billy waited while she flicked through screens. “You wanna go to New Zealand?” “Where?” Billy said.
But he liked New Zealand, he really did. At first he was ap-prehensive: it was so far away, tucked down in the bottom of the world like something Australia coughed up. But he landed in Auckland Airport and the people spoke American and there were McDonald’s and Coca-Cola machines everywhere and he felt re-lieved: it was a USA country, after all. He was feeling good when he asked the hotel concierge about the best places to ski, and then the guy laughed so hard he had to sit down. “Ski season?” he said. “Buddy, you’re too late. It’s spring.” “What are you talking about?”
“Come on,” the concierge said. “You know the Southern Hemisphere has backward seasons, right?” “You’re shitting me,” Billy said, but the concierge wasn’t: the concierge was telling the truth. He couldn’t believe it. Spring in October! Who would have thought?
Hoping to catch the last vestiges of snow, he caught a ferry to New Zealand’s South Island and a bus down to Invercargill, where it was freezing all year round. On the bus he met some backpackers from Massachusetts. They wanted to go somewhere exotic, they told Billy; they wanted something different. “We’ve done Laos, Thailand, everything,” one of the girls said. “You know the first thing we saw when we got off the boat at Ko Phangan? A Starbucks.” She looked disgusted. “Everything’s Americanized. We should have stayed home.” “Yeah, right,” Billy said, although he didn’t see what was wrong with being able to get good coffee in Thailand. The girl was pretty cute. “I’m here for the skiing. We could get a package together, maybe—” “Skiing, uh-uh,” the other girl said. “No sanitized experiences, thank you.” She wasn’t so cute. He disembarked alone in Invercargill and walked the main street looking for a cheap hotel. But first he came across an NRA office: a squat, professional-looking building with National Rifle As-sociation Ltd embossed in black letters on gray. He looked at it for a while. Then he went in. He was browsing the bulletin board for local shooting ranges when the receptionist said, “Would you like to join the local chapter, sir?”
Billy looked at her. She was young and blond, wearing a blue sweater. It fitted her very nicely. “If you’re going to be staying in town.” She smiled. Crum-pled on the desk beside her was a ski parka. “I’m staying,” Billy said.
He was on an NRA shooting range east of Invercargill when they approached him. There were two of them, both wear-ing blue suits. Neither of them seemed to be carrying guns. Billy nodded at them as he reloaded his rifle. He’d bought it at mem-ber discount prices: a Colt M4A1 carbine, sleek and heavy, thirty rounds to a clip. “Nice shooting,” one of the men said, smiling. He had a de-tectable accent, which was rare: most New Zealanders just sounded as if they were from California. His hair was slicked back. Both men were wearing sunglasses.
“Thanks.” He slotted the next clip in. “You guys shooters?” The man glanced at his companion. “Yeah, you could say that. You’re Billy Bechtel, right? You’re new here?” “Yep.” He fired. A stuffed dummy a hundred meters away spat a puff of feathers from its head.
“Funny, I didn’t know Bechtel had anything going on down here.” Billy looked at him. The truth was he wasn’t Billy Bechtel anymore, of course: he was just Billy, unemployed wanderer. But it was too embarrassing to announce yourself without a surname. People thought you were a bum. “I’m on vacation.”
“Right. Seeing the sights, eh? Getting to know a few of the locals?” He wondered if they knew he’d dated the NRA receptionist. They’d gotten a little hot and heavy last night in her
car. Maybe one of these guys was her father. He tightened his grip on the rifle. “Well, Billy, we’d like you to work for us.”
“Uh-huh. And who are you?” “The NRA,” the man said, and smiled broadly. He was creeping Billy out a little. “You’d be surprised what we’re doing these days, Billy, you really would. The NRA isn’t just about pam-phlets and gun shows anymore.” “We need men like you,” the second guy said. “Men just like you. And we pay well.” “Yeah? For what?” The man turned and looked out at the target. Billy could see the dummy reflected in his sunglasses. “That’s some nice shooting, all right. That’s really nice shooting.”
“Woo!” a broker said, sloshing champagne on his arm. “Shit! Sorry, Buy.” “That’s okay.”
“Come on, loosen up.” She took his arm. “They’ll approve your trades. I’m sure they will.” Buy was sitting on one of the desks, his tie slung. He had av-eraged four hours’ sleep for the last five days. Around him, brokers drank and laughed and shook hands. It was 6:15 P.M., Friday, Oc-tober 31. The financial year was officially over. “I am loose.”
“Leave him alone,” Cameron said, putting a hand on Buy’s shoulder. Cameron was the floor manager, and he would be sack-ing Buy in a few minutes, Buy suspected. “The guy’s put in a heroic week.”
“Well, the suspense is fucking killing me,” the woman said. “When do we find out if they’re canning him?” “I’m expecting—”
“Don’t say you’re expecting the call any minute.” “Lisa,” Cameron said. “As soon as I know, I’ll announce it.” “Well, I think you did the right thing, Buy. That was a gutsy move, promising to eat the commission if the stock fell. Really gutsy.” She looped her arm through his. “A few of us are hitting the bars tonight. Want to come? I think you should.” “I just want to go to bed. But thanks.” “Okay.” She took her arm back. “See you Monday, I hope.” When she left, Buy said, “Am I fired?”
Cameron considered. “Depends whether they want to make an example out of you more than they want to book your trades.”
“Maybe they’ll only disallow Mutual Unity,” Buy said. “Just enough to push me under quota.” “Buy, we don’t fire everyone who misses quota.” “Who missed quota but wasn’t fired?” “I’m saying theoretically,” Cameron said. “It’s not auto-matic, is what I mean.” “Oh,” Buy said.
“Cameron? Call from Head Office.” Everyone stopped talking. “Thank you,” Cameron said. His office was up some stairs and glass-encased, so he could look over the trading floor. Everyone watched him ascend.
“Well,” Buy said. “It’s been fun working with you.” He felt giddy. There was a knock on glass. He looked up. Cameron had his phone tucked under his ear. He gave Buy a thumbs-up.
He felt himself go faint. People surrounded him, slapping him on the back and shouting. Relief rushed through him like a physical thing and then he couldn’t stop laughing.
All he wanted to do was sleep, but halfway home the Chad-stone Wal-Mart mall called out to him. He deserved something to celebrate after today, didn’t he? He deserved something really ex-pensive. Buy turned the wheel. Inside the mall, he found a bank of ATMs installed at the base of a series of mezzanine floors, like peons gathered to stare up at a glass sky. A Mercedes-Benz dealer was conducting a raffle in the center, and Buy looked at the cars with interest. He had two cars already, but his Saab was no longer current-year. Maybe he deserved a new car.
A dark-haired schoolgirl was taking forever at the terminal. He peered over her shoulder. She was getting out a loan. He sighed.
The girl glanced at him. “I can’t get it to work.” With alarm, Buy saw tears forming in her eyes. “I’ve been trying —I really need—”
“Maybe you should try a different machine.” “None of them will loan to me!” “How much do you need?” “Five thousand dollars.” “Oh.” He smiled sympathetically. She stood there a moment. Buy thought she might be about to scream. Then she walked away. He stepped up to the machine and inserted his card. His current balance was a little over a hundred thousand. On impulse, he looked after the girl. She was pushing through shoppers, head-ing for the exit.
He pulled out five thousand: fifty hundred-dollar bills. Then he hurried after the girl. “Hey!” She didn’t turn until he put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey. Here.”
“What?” “It’s a present.” Her eyes widened, staring at the cash. Buy felt elated, better than he had in months. “Go on, take it. Get yourself something nice.”
Her hand crept up and wrapped around the notes. “Why— why would you do that?” “I’m celebrating.”
“Thank you so much! Oh my God, thank you so much!” “What’s your name?” “Hayley! I’m Hayley McDonald’s!” “I’m Buy,” he said. “Have fun.”
Hack was jumpy as hell tonight, and he was driving Violet nuts. She was working sixteen-hour days to finish her software, and with two days to deadline she didn’t have time to talk him out of his tree again. There was a lot riding on this: it was her big chance. Three months of coding based on a year’s worth of re-search and an idea so brilliant it had stopped her dead in the street one day; she couldn’t throw that away to deal with Hack’s latest drama.
Hack started tapping his foot, jiggling her laptop. “Hack. Please.” “I’m sorry.” He looked at her plaintively.
“It’s not your problem, Hack.” “I’m killing somebody,” he whispered. “You’re not. You just passed on a job. It’s got nothing to do with you.” He started jiggling his foot again.
“Have a drink,” Violet said. “Go down to the supermarket, buy some drugs.” “I don’t want to.” “Then do something else! I don’t have time for this!” He looked at her screen. She resisted the urge to snap the lid shut. “You working on your program?” “Yes. The security software.” This wasn’t strictly accurate, but it was less complicated than the truth, which was: the virus. Nontechnical people had trouble appreciating Violet’s vision.
“Need any help?” “No.” She forced herself to say: “Thanks.” “Okay.” He walked over to the window and looked up at the sky. Violet went back to her code. She was almost lost in it when he said, “I hope it’s no one nice.” “I’m sure it’s not, Hack,” she said, not really paying atten-tion.
She was wearing a long coat, to hide what was underneath. Her hair was tucked into a shawl. She wore dark sunglasses, al-though they couldn’t conceal the barcode tattoo beneath her left eye. But she didn’t mind that. It made it harder for people to tell what she was.
The Chadstone Wal-Mart mall was six stories in places, and mezzanine-style all the way down. The Nike Town was on the fourth level. She glanced down as she stepped off the escalator. On the ground floor, shoppers flowed around two gleaming Mer-cedes automobiles.
There was already a crush around the Nike Town, made up of maybe four dozen teenagers, most in school uniforms. The store had its shutter down, but a bald man in a suit was talking through it. He waved his arms excitedly. The kids rattled the shut-ter in response. The doors to the Nike Town had long, metal swooshes as handles, she saw, tapering to a point: they looked pretty dangerous. She hoped none of these teenagers were going to impale themselves.
There was a Barnes & Noble a few stores down with a nice reflective window, so she stood in front of it. For twenty minutes, she saw no one likely to be her target. At one point she caught her-self reading the jackets of the books in the window, and jerked her eyes away. Possibly the book of the year, the jacket had said, which she found unlikely. This was Barnes & Noble’s Non-Best-Selling Au-thors floor.
After thirty-five minutes, she saw a young man in camou-flage pants. He was on the side opposite to the Nike Town, across the gap, leaning on the guardrail. He lit a cigarette. From the bulge in his jacket, he was carrying a gun in a shoulder holster. There was thirty feet of air between him and the Nike Town, which would protect him from the crowd, and an emergency exit directly behind him. There was no doubt. This was her target. The kids had been chanting for five minutes—0-PEN, 0-PEN, 0-PEN—but now they started shrieking, almost scream-ing. Girls waved rolls of money, jumping in excitement. Then the Nike Town shutter clattered upward and the noise turned into a cacophony. The teenagers stampeded: she saw a boy go down, crying out. She turned and began walking quietly toward the store, glancing at the target. He was straightening, tossing aside his cigarette.
“Sold!” a man shouted. In the Nike Town, four girls wearing McDonald’s school uniforms were screaming with delight, hold-ing a box of Mercurys—no, four boxes. And there were more: the shelves were lined with them. Her information had been wrong. This store had more than five pairs. It had dozens.
The girls forced their way out of the store, talking excitedly. The target slipped a hand in his jacket. “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe we each got a pair!” “We should get more—we should go back in—”
The girls squeezed past her. She kept still, unable to move until the target did. The last girl, the one with dark hair, moved di-rectly in front of her. She could smell the girl’s perfume. A man in the crowd pressed a gun to the back of the girl’s neck.
Her instinctive reaction—the emotion that burst across her brain first—was disappointment. Wrong one, I targeted the wrong one. Then the gun fired, sharp and loud. The girl went down. The crowd screamed and flinched like a single animal. The assassin was a muscular young man in a black T-shirt. He was five feet away from her, and their eyes met.
“They’re killing people for their Mercurys!” someone shouted, and the crowd surged. The assassin broke for the Barnes & Noble.
She threw off her coat and hefted the machine gun con-cealed inside it. It was a Vektor SS77: heavy and awkward, but capable of nine hundred rounds a minute. Four steps to her right took her out of the crowd. She dropped to her knee and squeezed the trigger.
He zagged as if he’d known it was coming, and she blew out the Barnes & Noble window, disintegrating novels. She tracked him as quickly as she was able to with the Vektor shuddering against her shoulder, and tore up the floor in thick plaster chunks. The assassin dived through the Toys “R” Us window.
She dropped the Vektor and broke out her two .45s. He was scrambling for his footing among the display of life-sized Barbie dolls; she wasn’t fortunate enough for him to have cut his throat on the plate glass, it seemed. She squeezed the triggers, letting the pistols go fully automatic. The arm of a Doctor Barbie exploded; she tore a Prom Queen Barbie in half. The assassin rolled and vanished into the store.
She pulled off her glasses and shawl and ran. This was not good: she was not going to be able to chase down muscular young men in T-shirts, not with the amount of body armor she was wearing. She ran anyway. The assassin had reached the in-store escalators. There were shoppers everywhere, staring at her. “Out of the way!” she shouted. “Get down!”
They scattered, and she dived for the escalator, landing on her stomach and sliding, leading with her .45s. There was a man at the bottom, looking up, and she almost put him down before recognizing he wasn’t the target. She regained her feet and looked around. Toys “R” Us was like a bowling alley, nothing but endless aisles. “Which way? Where’d he go?”
He pointed at the nearest aisle. She ran, but it was empty. Fluorescent-lit racks of Star Wars characters stood mutely. She moved to the next aisle, then the next.
It was quiet. No panting, no running, no shrieking shoppers. This meant the assassin had gone native, trying to blend in with the crowd. She ran for the exit.
A checkout boy saw her guns and hollered. She jumped the turnstile and kept running. A crowd had gathered at the railing to stare up at the Nike Town on level four. And a man was walking briskly toward the central escalators, a well-built young man in a black T-shirt.
She pushed through the crowd to the edge of the mezzanine and clambered up onto the railing. When she could see him clearly, she balanced herself with her legs and shouted: “Freeze!” Her voice echoed. “This is the Government!”
He turned. It was the assassin. Less than two feet in front of him, the escalator churned. He looked at it, then at her.
“Don’t move!” He raised his hands. Thank Christ, she thought. She gestured with a pistol, and he stepped away from the escalator. She glanced down to see if it was clear for her to jump down from the railing.
The thing was: she should have seen it coming. She had identified him from the beginning, when she saw his reflection in the window of Barnes & Noble. She should have realized there were two of them.
He was maybe twenty feet away. He had a pistol pointed at her. There was nothing she could do. He fired, and it was like being hit by a car. Her feet went out from under her. As she fell, the fluorescent lights twisted and swirled above her. She had time to think: The lights look like angels. Then she landed on the roof of a Mercedes, catching the car with her spine. Its windshield blew out. The car rocked wildly. She blinked. She could still blink.
After a while, some faces appeared above her. “Get her down,” someone said, and someone else said, “No, don’t move her.” “Honey?” a woman said. “I’ll call help for you. What’s your name?” “Government.” Her tongue felt like a bloated, broken sausage. All she could taste was blood. “Jennifer Government.”
10 American Express
Buy hadn’t meant to hang around. He was happy with him-self; now he was going to go home and sleep. But he hesitated at one of the Mercedes, attracting the attention of the dealer and be-coming ensnared in a sales pitch, and so was still there to hear the shots.
He dropped to a crouch, aware that everyone around him was doing the same, and craned his neck upward. Gunfire broke out again: an automatic weapon. He heard screaming, glass breaking.
Buy and the dealer crawled toward the cars, seeking cover. The mall fell silent. It was eerie, so many people being so quiet. Then after a minute they started to emerge. Buy got to his feet.
The dealer wrung his hands. “Excitement.” “I think I’m going to take a look,” Buy said. “You should leave it to mall security,” the dealer said.
“I know first aid.” Not many people did; there was too much risk of being sued. Buy caught the escalator up. On the fourth floor, there were a lot of teenagers standing around, dazed; some were cowering inside shops. Glass sparkled outside the Barnes & Noble and a line of jagged holes in the floor marked a path toward Toys “R” Us. On the ground outside the Nike Town, a girl was bleeding to death. He said, “Hayley?”
Her neck was exposed. He ran to her, tore off his jacket, and tried to staunch the flow of blood. Her eyes rolled. “Someone call an ambulance!” he roared. “Does someone have—” “I have a cellphone,” a kid said, handing it to him. Buy dialed 911 and tucked it under his ear. Hayley was looking at him; he re-alized she wanted him to take her hand. He squeezed it tightly.
“Nine-eleven Emergency, how can I help you?” “I need an ambulance. Quickly, a girl has been shot at the Chadstone Wal-Mart mall.” “Certainly, sir. Can you tell me the girl’s name?”
“Hayley. Hayley something. Please, come straight away.” “Sir, I need to know if the victim is part of our register,” the operator said. “If she’s one of our clients, we’ll be there within a few minutes. Otherwise I’m happy to recommend—”
“I need an ambulance!” he shouted, and it was only when water splashed on his hand that he realized he had started to cry. “I’ll pay for it, I don’t care, just come!”
“Do you have a credit card, sir?” “Yes! Send someone now!”
“As soon as I confirm your ability to pay, sir. This will only take a few seconds.” He looked at the faces around him. “Someone help her. Help her!” The kid who had loaned Buy his cellular knelt down and held the jacket over the wound. A girl began stroking Hayley’s hair. Buy dragged his wallet out from his back pocket and re-trieved his credit card. Hayley’s eyes were fixed on him. I promise, he told her. I promise. “I have American Express—” “That’s fine, sir. Could you read your card number to me, please?” “Nine seven one four, oh three—”
Two shots rang out from somewhere below them, close. The people around him shrieked and fled; only the kid stayed, crouch-ing lower.
“—six six—” People were screaming. Something hit the ground—or one of the Mercedes?—with a deafening boom. “Sir? Are you there? I didn’t catch the number, sir.”
The kid put his hand over Buy’s. “Mister … I don’t think it matters.” Hayley was no longer looking at him. Her eyes were turned upward, at the Nike Town sign, at the fluorescent lights. Her face was white.
“Oh, no,” Buy said. “No, please.” “Sir?” the operator said. “Can you please repeat your credit card number for me, sir? Sir? Are you there? Sir? Sir?”
They came for him at eleven o’clock the following night. Hack was in front of the television. He had AOL Time Warner, 182 channels, and four including CNN-A were running nonstop on the Mercury killings. He sat on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, and flicked from one channel to another. He’d been doing it for thirty hours.
That’s one theory, Mary. But one thing’s for sure: there are fourteen con-firmed dead, and nobody’s— Some Nike Town stores are now closed, but many remain open, despite the obvious risk. With demand for Mercurys running at fever pitch—
The words flowed around him. He couldn’t hear anything except the number fourteen. The security buzzer sounded, startling him. He got up and walked to the kitchen. “Hello?” “It’s John. Can I come up?” “Who?” He heard laughter. “He said, ‘Who?’ “John said. “Come on, Hack, don’t mess with us. This is a shitty neighborhood.”
Hack froze. “John Nike?” “You subcontracted, didn’t you, Hack? You passed on the job. I guess we didn’t make ourselves clear. And that’s really our fault. I blame myself, and John here, he feels terrible. Don’t you, John?”
A second voice. “Let’s talk about it, Hack. Open the door.” “This isn’t a good time.”
There was a pause. Then, much clearer: “Hack, you little shit, open the door.” He pushed the security button and heard it sound down-stairs. He took a step away from the intercom and stared at it. He hoped he wasn’t making another big mistake.
When the Johns knocked on his front door, he unlocked it with trembling fingers. The door swung open. The sudden light from the hallway dazzled him. He shielded his eyes and lost his grip on the blanket.
“Oh, God,” Vice-President John said, stepping past him. “What are they, Disney boxer shorts? And you a Merchandising Officer.” “You look like crap,” the other John said. They were both wearing dark suits. They had gleaming black shoes. “Hack, your breath.”
John was already in the living room. The bedroom door was ajar, Hack saw. Violet was asleep in there. “Come here, Hack. We’ve got something to show you.”
As he passed by the bedroom door, he pulled it closed. The Johns didn’t seem to notice. Hack sat on the sofa and tugged the blanket around himself.
The other John found Hack’s remote and zapped the TV An image of Vice-President John jumped onto the screen. “Aw, we missed the start. You kept us waiting too long, Hack.”
On the screen, John said, “None of that takes away from the fact that this is a real tragedy. We understand that people value our products very highly—the Nike Air range, the very successful Nike Jordan label, and of course the amazing new Nike Mercurys. But to kill for a pair is wrong, and Nike will not tolerate it.”
“I still think you should have thumped the podium,” the other John said. “For effect.” “Understatement,” John said. “That’s the key.”
“We will hunt down the killers, and we will see justice done. That’s a promise from Nike. That’s a money-back guarantee.”
“Killer close,” John said. “Pardon the pun.” He looked at Hack. “What do you think?” “You’re going to turn me in to the Government.” There was no point going for the door. Maybe the window? Hack’s hands tightened into fists.
The Johns burst out laughing. “Hack,” the other John said, “you are one crazy kid.” “You’re a Merc Officer,” Vice-President John said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Sometimes we forget that not everyone un-derstands marketing like we do. Hack, what you just saw was a press release. We have no intention of hunting down the people responsible, because the people responsible are us. All right?” Hack nodded.
“But the thing is, that was meant to be our little secret. And it’s not anymore, is it? You couldn’t keep your mouth shut.”
“I mean, Hack, if we wanted to use someone outside the company, we would have picked up the fucking phone, you know?”
“I didn’t know that,” Hack said. “You never said anything about—” “Look, there’s no point wasting time over whose fault it is,” Vice-President John said. “Although frankly, Hack, it’s yours. All we can do now is control it. So first question: who’d you subcon-tract to?”
“I—the Police.” John nodded. “Okay. A professional organization, at least. You seen their ads, John?” “Sure. Eighty-six percent success rate.” “Yeah,” John said. “That’s a really amazing figure.” He looked at Hack. “I’m assuming you told them this was
Nike’s job.” “Ah . . .” “Don’t be coy, Hack. We know these agencies insist on knowing where the job is coming from.” “Um, okay. Yeah, I told them.”
“Fuck!” the other John said. “Hack, you dumb shit!” “Shh,” Vice-President John said. “It’s okay, Hack. Now we’re getting somewhere. I mean, obviously none of this is good, from a big-picture point of view. Overall, it’s very fucked, a commercial-in-confidence arrangement getting spread all over the place. But on the individual level, as far as our relationship goes, Hack, I’m very pleased you’re being straight with me.” He leaned forward, so his face was almost touching Hack’s. His skin seemed uncomfortably tight, his cheekbones artificially prominent. “And since we’re sharing, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The Police didn’t do these shootings. You want to know who did?” “Uh,” Hack said. “The NRA. We’ve got data on six incidents, and it smells like those National Rifle clowns all the way. They think under-cover is guys in black T-shirts and camouflage pants. So what does that suggest to you, Hack?” Hack shook his head.
“It means the Police subcontracted, too.” John sighed. “Everyone wants to outsource these days. No one has any respect for core competencies. But Nike is friendly with the NRA, Hack, with us both being in the US Alliance program; if we’d wanted to subcontract, we would have chosen them ourselves. So if the job went from you to the Police to the NRA, that’s only one unsecure link in the chain, which, again, is not fantastic, but isn’t a catas-trophe. What would be a catastrophe is if there are other links in the chain. Links we don’t know about. You follow me?” “You want to … find out if the Police went straight to the NRA?” “Brilliant, Einstein,” the other John said. He was watching the TV, which was replaying a scene at a Sydney Nike Town. About two hundred teenagers were storming it, clawing at each other for position. The plate-glass window shattered. The John snickered.
“That’s exactly what I want you to do,” Vice-President John said, smiling. “Now.” “Now?” “I’ll accompany you. John will wait here.” “Got any snacks?” the other John said. “Um . . .” Hack said, thinking about Violet. “You—why don’t you both come with me? Or, how about I’ll go talk to the Po-lice and afterward I’ll call you—”
The other John looked up. “Don’t tell us what to do, Hack. Don’t even think about doing that.” “I think we should go,” Vice-President John said. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Now. I really do.”
“Hey,” somebody said. “Jen. Hey.” She opened her eyes. Then she shut them. Lights like angels, she thought. God is fluorescent. “Come on. Open up.” “Ahh,” she said. “That’s my girl. Come on.” She forced open her eyes. Calvin, her partner, was sitting by a bed. She was in the bed. The bed seemed to be in a hospital.
“The Mercedes dealer is suing us for the cost of the car you landed on, can you believe that? Forty-eight thousand bucks.”
“Did—did they get away?” He sighed. ” ‘Fraid so. We got screwed at the downtown Nike Town, too. And in Sydney . . .” Calvin scratched his nose. “Well, Ben’s fine. There were no bad guys at Ben’s Nike Town, he spent the night watching thirteen year-olds buy sneakers. But Tay-lor . . . Taylor tagged a bad guy. Then we figure his accomplice got her.” “Oh, no.” She tried to cover her face. Pain shot through her shoulder. “Ahh!”
“Don’t move that arm,” Calvin said. “You’re getting a sling or something. Anyway, we’re all happy that you made it back in one piece, okay? Clearly we went into this operation with bad in-formation.”
“My source is reliable. I know she is.” “Um,” he said. “Not that I want to press the issue, but those stores all had more than five pairs of Mercurys.” “I trust my source,” she said. She felt thirsty. Her whole body ached. She needed to go to the bathroom, and from the tubes coming out of her arm, it looked like she’d have to take a stand full of bags and drips with her. “Well, we can debate that later. She called last night, by the way. Left a name, too. Hack Nike.”
“Who?” “Beats the hell out of me. You didn’t hear about anyone called Hack when you were sniffing around Nike?” “No.” “Well, maybe he’s nobody,” Calvin said. “Like I say, the quality of our information to this point has not been spectacular.”
She screwed shut her eyes, trying to think. “You know, I should come back later.” Calvin rose from his chair. “You need some rest. I’ll take care of—” “Wait. How . . . how many . . .”
He sat again. “Fourteen dead. At least eight were contract killings, all from families of limited means. At this stage it looks like the victims were selected for low incomes. I hate to say it, but it’s going to be tough to get
budget on this one.” “What about leads?” “We’ve got two. First, a dead bad guy, courtesy of Taylor. We’re running background on him now. Second, some stockbro-ker who was on the scene with a victim. He says he didn’t see any-thing, but we haven’t pushed him yet.”
“What about this Hack Nike?” “Well,” Calvin said, “since your source didn’t turn out to be so reliable, I haven’t followed it up yet.” “Get him.”
“If we get funding, sure, I’ll—” “Now,” Jennifer said. “Get him.” “Before budget approval? Are you sure?” “Do I look sure?” “You look awful,” Calvin said, and laughed.
Billy had been involved in some weird shit before, but this was right up there. The NRA had given them animal code names, so now he couldn’t even say howdy to someone without feeling like a dick. Some guys took straight to it, all, “Evening, Horse,” and, “Jackal, can that shit,” but Billy thought it was stupid. Billy was Mouse.
He’d been out in the bush for three days, sleeping in ditches. He was wearing camouflage pants and a heavy jacket over a black T-shirt and carrying a slicker. He’d used that as a pillow last night, even when it started raining. This morning his smokes were too wet to light and his arms were so stiff he could hardly lift them. The NRA called it a war game, and it was meant to test his skills. So far it had only tested Billy’s patience. This was not skiing.
“The flag’s gotta be close now,” Grizzly said. “Gotta be real close.” “We need that flag,” said Calf. She was the scariest-looking woman Billy had ever met. “I really want this job.” “What do you mean?” Billy said. “We’re already hired, right? I thought this was just training.”
“Yeah,” Calf said. “The kind of training that costs you your job if you mess up.” “Oh,” Billy said. “Wow.” “Can the chatter!” Finch said, walking backward. “And stay tight!” Billy scowled. He’d had enough of Finch, the squad leader, too. If Finch said “chain of command” again, Billy was ready to pay out.
They walked. The bush was much thicker now, almost a for-est. There were weird-ass animals out here, Billy
knew. Types of animals he’d never seen before. The idea spooked him. Something moved in the scrub to their left. The squad dropped to the ground. Billy raised his paintgun. It might not stop a charging bear, or rhino, or whatever the hell they had here, but if he aimed for the eyes— “Naw, lemme do it. You load it like this.” Voices. Finch gestured, Fan out. Billy didn’t think that was such a great idea; if they snapped twigs, they’d give themselves away. He looked at Finch questioningly.
“Move,” Finch hissed. He sighed. He and Drake took one flank, Grizzly and Calf the other. They made ten yards before either Grizzly or Calf snapped a branch and said, “Ahh, shit!”
“Go! Go!” Finch shouted. “Attack!”
Billy ran, thinking this was really generous of Finch, yelling out to let the enemy know they were coming. He leapt over a fallen tree. Drake pounded behind him.
They burst into a clearing, which had a red flag and a lot of NRA guys with red bands around their arms, and suddenly every-one was shooting paintballs. Drake caught a glob on his chest and sat down. Billy dived, rolled, and took up a position behind a tree. He globbed four enemies, fluidly shooting and reloading. Then Grizzly and Calf entered the clearing from the other side.
“Take that, asshole!” Grizzly shouted, and pumped a paint round into a man who was already sitting down. “Behind you!” Billy yelled, but it was too late. Grizzly took one in the buttocks.
“Son of a bitch,” said Grizzly. “Sit down, you moron,” the dead enemy said. Calf ran for a clutch of trees that was sheltering the re-maining red soldier. He fired at her once, then ran. Calf was pretty scary. Billy globbed the soldier, then walked out into the clearing.
Calf met him in the middle. “Hey, good work, Mouse. You got a good eye on you.” “Thanks.” He eyed her pants. “Hey, Calf… I think they got you.”
“What? Aw, shit!” “Well, well!” Finch said, arriving. “A good day for the blue team!” He walked to the flagpole and began tugging at the ropes. “I think the blue team will all find secure NRA positions.”
“You got everyone shot” Billy said. “Everyone except me.” Finch looked around. “Well, perhaps not all of us, then.” “You asshole!” Calf said. “You let them know we were coming!” “I did not,” Finch said. “That was your own fault, snapping branches and so forth.” “You did, man,” one of the enemies said. “I heard someone say, ‘Go, attack!’ ” “Thanks a lot, Finch! You probably cost me a job!”
“Your ineptitude in combat isn’t my fault,” Finch said. He began folding the flag, tucking one end under his chin. Billy said, “You think you’re a real squad commander? This is a game! You think they’d ever put you in charge for real?”
Everyone fell silent. Finch raised his paintgun. “Shut your mouth, Mouse.” Billy laughed. “What are you going to do? Shoot me?” “I said stand down!” “Give me the flag. You don’t deserve it.” He reached for it. Finch pulled the trigger. Billy felt something sharp strike his chest. He looked down and saw a mess of blue paint on his jacket. He raised his head. Finch said nervously, “Now, Mouse—” and Billy punched him in the face.
Finch fell to the ground. Arms grabbed at Billy. He flailed wildly and connected with something soft. Someone yelled, “Ahh, my nose!” Then Billy was on the ground and a lot of angry peo-ple were holding him down. “What’s the matter with you?” “Get out of here,” a man said. “The NRA doesn’t need thugs like you.” “The NRA will hear about this, Mouse,” Finch said, his voice shrill. “You can forget about your job!” Billy looked at Calf, hoping for support. She looked at the ground. “You’d better scoot, Mouse.” “Fine!” He scrambled to his feet. He tore off his blue arm-band and threw it to the ground, but no one seemed very im-pressed. He almost shouted, Screw you all, but strangled the impulse. He turned on his heel and walked away.
Twenty minutes later, he realized he didn’t have a solid grip on his bearings. The bushland looked the same in every direction. In places it was so thick he had to scramble over fallen trees and hack through bushes. The blue paint on his jacket dried to form a hard layer that chafed against his skin, and he pulled it off and hurled it at a tree. Ten minutes later his arms were attacked so vi-olently by mosquitoes that he headed back for it.
But this was harder than it sounded, and Billy realized he was well and truly lost. He spent half an hour smashing through the bush, getting increasingly irate at himself, the NRA, and mis-leading blue birds. He wished he’d never met those NRA suits at the firing range. When he got out of this, the first thing Billy was going to do was cancel his membership.
About three hours later, he stumbled across a dirt road. He was so relieved he fell to his knees. He was dirty and tired and his throat made clicking sounds when he swallowed. He was also dy-ing for a cigarette, but scared of how much worse his thirst would get if he smoked one. He peered down the road, first one way, then the other. Neither looked especially promising.
He walked forever. Not a single car passed him. The sun be-gan to fall below the tree line and a chill settled in the air. Billy was now really regretting pitching that jacket. He was thinking he might be in real trouble. He was beginning to think he might die.
Then he glanced to his right and saw the Jeep. There was a tiny track off the road, just a gap in the trees, really, and a few hundred yards down it, a red glow of brake lights. Billy stopped and stared. Then he ran toward it. It was an NRA vehicle, he could tell even in the gloom, with a few NRA uniforms sitting in it. One of the men was looking in his direction. “Hoy!” Billy yelled, waving his arms. “Hello, hello!”
The man raised a rifle. Billy stopped running. A spotlight snapped on, blinding him. He raised an arm to shield his eyes.
“Identify yourself.” “I’m Billy! Billy NRA!” Silence. His legs started to tremble. He had a terrible feeling he was somewhere he shouldn’t be. He heard someone jump down from the Jeep and walk toward him, boots crunching through the undergrowth. A man entered the light. He was short and maybe fifty and wearing a uniform with a lot of shiny bits and pieces. None of this made Billy feel any better.
“You’re Bill NRA?” “Yes.”
The man exhaled. “Jesus. We thought you weren’t going to show. I’m Yallam.” “I’m—pleased to meet you, sir.” His legs wouldn’t quit shaking.
“You all right?” “I’m fine, sir.” “We heard about the trouble in Sydney. Sorry about Damon.” “I—” Billy said, then realized there was only one correct re-sponse here. “Yes, sir.” Yallam turned around. “Frank! Turn off that light.”
The light died. Billy blinked in the sudden darkness. “We’d better get moving. You disposed of your vehicle?” “My—yes, sir.”
“Good man.” Yallam clapped him on the back and began steering him toward the Jeep. Billy very much didn’t want to get into that Jeep. “You’re a credit to the NRA, son. Don’t think your work this last week won’t go unrewarded.” “Thank you, sir,” Billy said. A soldier opened the door for him and he climbed in. He had never been so scared in his life.
The shrink said, “Now you’re going to tell me you don’t need to be here.” “Wow, you’re good,” Jennifer said. The plastic chair was un-comfortable. The office was small, dark, and had no view. She had been discharged, or so she’d thought. The Government was in-sisting on an outgoing psych evaluation. Jennifer just wanted to go home.
“Danger is part of your job, right? You’re wasting time here when you could be out pursuing the perpetrators.” “Amazing,” she said. “It’s like I don’t even have to be here.”
The shrink rested his elbows on his desk. She could see an open file, which she guessed was hers. “Jennifer, I’m not going to ask you about your childhood, or your sex life, or what an ink blot looks like. I’m only here to help you deal with the trauma. Prevent it from dominating your life.”
“The only trauma was my stupidity. I was there to do a job; I screwed up. I practically deserved to get shot.” “Do you really think that?” “No,” she said. “I deserved to save that girl, and those two gun-toting assholes deserved to die instead of her. But you can’t win them all.”
The shrink paused. It was a meaningful pause, Jennifer sus-pected: it was to give her time to consider her response and revise it. She kept her mouth shut.
“You know,” the shrink said, “some people, as they recover from trauma, obsess on the perpetrators. Their lives come to re-volve around the enemy. They constantly think about obtaining justice.”
“These people sound sensible.” “They withdraw from loved ones. Only the trauma is im-portant to them. They can feel desensitized to violence; they can become aggressive. Does any of this sound familiar?” “Well, we could discuss these people all day,” she said, stand-ing. “But since I have work to do—” “Sit.”
She sat. “You know, this isn’t even about me. This is about some asshole at Nike thinking he can build a career out of dead teenagers. You don’t know what these people are like. They don’t stop until you make them stop.” “Yes, I’m aware of your corporate past,” the shrink said. His eyes slid to her barcode tattoo. “You have scores to settle, yes?”
“Hey,” she said. “That has nothing to do with this. It’s not me who can’t forget that, it’s you people.” ‘Are you working for the Government to atone for your past?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m a real idealist.” ” ‘From the single-minded idealist to the fanatic is but a step.’ F. A. Hayek wrote that. ‘There is only one step from fanati-cism to barbarism.’ That’s Denis Diderot.” “Someone should shoot you and drop you three floors,” she said. “You could write an article.” He sighed and made a note in the file. She didn’t think it was a good note.
“You’re recommending I be suspended? Is that it?” “Jennifer, clearly you could benefit from a rest before re-turning to active duty.”
“I don’t need a rest!” He looked up. “I’m told you don’t date. Is that true?” “I thought we weren’t discussing my sex life.” “It’s relevant to your loss of perspective.” “I’m leaving.” She stood up, too quickly. Her chair toppled backward and hit the floor. “Wait! Jennifer!”
She slammed the door behind her. People in the corridor turned. She stared back at them. Outside the hospital it was dark and there were no cabs, so she stood by the road and waited. It wasn’t until her jaw began to ache that she realized she was clenching it.
The cab dropped her on Peckville Street and she struggled up to the front door. Jennifer was discovering how difficult it was to do anything with one arm in a sling, even to get into her own house. In the end she rang the bell.
She owned a single-fronted house in North Melbourne, a small, innercity suburb that had so far mostly resisted the apart-ment block invasion. Jennifer had moved to Melbourne from Los Angeles nine years ago: she had needed an escape, Australia was completing its absorption into the United States, and the TV ad-vertisements were calling it the new California. “Melbourne is L.A. without the smog,” a real estate man told her, which she guessed was true, but it was also L.A. without the amenities. She had been shocked by how small the place was. That had changed, of course. There had been so much construction since then that she hardly recognized the city anymore.
The porch light flicked on. An eye appeared at the peephole. “Oh!” a girl said. She unlocked and swung open the door. “I won-dered if you were coming home tonight.”
“I—sorry. I should have called.” “No, it’s fine,” the girl said. “I’m just studying.” She hefted her bag. “I’ll hit the road, unless there’s anything you need.” “Urn,” she said. “No, thanks.” “Give me a call if you need me again.” The girl banged her way out the front door. Jennifer went in and dropped her bag on the sofa. The hall-way light was on, but Kate’s room was dark, so she snuck inside and stood there for a moment, letting her eyes adjust.
“Mommy?” “Hi, sweetie.” She knelt beside the bed. “Your hair looks funny.” “They had to cut it. Look, I have stitches.”
Kate touched Jennifer’s skull, feeling her hair. “I liked it bet-ter before.” “Well, I think it looks snappy,” she said. “Were you good for the baby-sitter?” “Yes.”
“Good girl.” She stroked Kate’s face. “You want to have a glass of milk with me?” “It’s very late, Mommy.”
“I know.” “All right.” She pulled back the covers. Jennifer took her hand as they walked to the kitchen. “Did you hurt your arm?” “A little, yeah.” “Is it going to be all right?” “Of course,” Jennifer said. “Everything always works out all right.”
Violet woke and a man was sitting on her bed. “Hi,” he said. She scrambled away, pulling the blankets with her. “Who are you?” “I’m a friend of Hack’s. But he didn’t say anything about you. Are you his girlfriend?” He sat down on the bed. “You have nice shoulders.”
“Where’s Hack?” “He went for a walk.” The man’s face was smooth. His suit was dark and anonymous. “He won’t be back for a while.”
“Please leave.” “But Hack invited me in. What’s your name?” “I want you to go.”
“I’m John Nike.” He smiled, his teeth gleaming faintly in the gloom. “Who are you?” “Violet.” “Violet who?” He shifted closer. “Are you unemployed? It’s all right. It happens, sometimes. I tell you what, unemployed Vio-let. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for a kiss.”
She tightened her grip on the blankets. “Get out. Now.” He raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty generous. Considering you’re in no position to negotiate.” His hand touched her thigh.
“Let go of me!” “You need to be enterprising to get ahead, Violet. You need to take advantage of opportunities.” He squeezed. She reached for his hand. He grabbed her wrists and pinned them to the wall. The blanket dropped.
“Hoo,” he said, looking down. “Those are nice puppies.” She bit his ear as hard as she could.
She rolled off the bed, landing on her hands and knees. She scrambled to her feet and ran. She had the front door half-unlocked before she realized just how bad an idea that was, run-ning naked at night through this neighborhood. She ran into the kitchen and began pulling open drawers.
“You little bitch,” John said, entering. “If I need cosmetic surgery, you’re going to pay for it.” She found a knife, a long one. “Stay away from me.”
“I don’t think so, unemployed Violet.” He edged closer, watching the knife. “I don’t think you want to get in any more trouble than you already are.” “You attacked me—” she said, and he grabbed her wrist and slammed it onto the kitchen bench. She cried out. The knife clat-tered to the floor.
There was a crumpet toaster on the bench, a shiny, heavy thing Hack had bought her for her last birthday. It had variable-sized slots for different bread and an auto-sensor so it never burnt. Violet grabbed it with both hands and swung it at John’s face. It rang like a bell. John dropped to the floor.
He didn’t move. Violet peered at him. He didn’t seem to be breathing. After a moment, she prodded him with her foot. “Are you—”
He grabbed her ankle. She fell backward and banged her head against the stove. His hands clutched at her legs. She shrieked and flailed at him with the crumpet toaster. She cracked his knuckles, then hit her own knee. She slammed the toaster on his hands, his head, his face, until she realized he’d stopped mov-ing again. He hadn’t been moving for a while.
She pulled herself out from under him, breathing heavily. John was limp. She looked at the toaster. There were spots of blood on it.
She dropped the toaster and circled around his body. She shut the kitchen door and went into the bedroom, pulled on a T-shirt and pants, and sat on the bed. After a while she started to bite her nails. She thought she may have just done something terrible.
“You sure we shouldn’t drive?” John said. There were some teenagers across the road, listening to loud music. “It’s just up here,” Hack said.
“Why do you even live here? How much are you earning at Nike?” “Um . . . about thirty-three.”
“Jesus!” John said. “What’s the matter with you?” “I… guess I’m not very good in pay negotiations,” Hack said. Hack sucked in pay negotiations. Every year his boss sat him down and talked about competitive pressures and budget cuts; at the end he named a figure and Hack took it, grateful to be still em-ployed.
“There are courses you can do. Assertiveness training. You should look into it. Is this it?” Hack looked up. The Police, the swirling blue light. “Yes.”
John straightened his tie. “Now, this is what you’re going to do. You go in, you ask for whoever you talked to last time. You es-tablish exactly how many other links in the chain there are. Then you leave. Nothing else.” “Okay,” Hack said. They went in. The same music, “Every Breath You Take,” was playing. That must get pretty annoying, Hack thought. “Can I speak to Sergeant Pearson, please?” “Certainly, sir.” It was the same receptionist. She smiled at him. “Your name?” “Hack Nike.”
She looked at John. “And?” “A friend,” John said.
The receptionist eyeballed him. She was friendly so long as you didn’t mess with her, Hack realized. “Take a seat.”
They sat. “You gave your real name?” John whispered. Hack said nothing. He was thinking about Violet at home with the other John. Pearson didn’t keep them waiting: within a minute he strode into the lobby. He was a real presence, Pearson, Hack thought. Pearson commanded respect. “Hack, glad to see you. Right this way.” He led them into the same meeting room. “What can I do for you?”
Hack said, “I’m here to talk about the job.” “Uh-huh.” Pearson raised his eyebrows at John. “I know about it,” John said.
“Uh, yeah, he does,” Hack said. “I just wanted to ask who you, um, gave the job to.” Pearson was silent. “Are you happy with the results, Hack?”
“Happy?” he said, and almost laughed. “I—sure, I guess.” “This was a significant enterprise. I’m not sure if you ap-preciate the complexity of the assignment. The pricing we offered was extremely generous.”
“Um, sure. I just want to know about subcontracting.” “I see,” Pearson said. “You knew we reserved the right to do that, right?” “Well… I guess. I mean, it doesn’t matter if the NRA ac-tually did it. I just want to know—” Pearson’s eyebrows shot up. “What makes you think it was NRA work?”
“Oh!” Hack glanced at John, who looked disgusted. “I just. . . thought.” “Did you?” Pearson said. “Well, that’s a very interesting guess, Hack. Because, as we discussed, we treat our business asso-ciations with the utmost confidence. The utmost confidence.” “That’s what I want to talk about. I want to know if there were any other, um, business associates, besides the NRA.”
Pearson folded his hands neatly. “In our line of work, Hack, discretion is critical. I’m surprised you don’t know this already. Did I give you a brochure?”
“Ah—” “I’ll give you a brochure. We have safeguards in place to pro-tect your confidentiality. They are incontrovertible.”
“Okay,” Hack said. “But I see you want additional assurance,” Pearson said. “Which, given the nature of the job, I can understand. Very well. I can inform you that the directive passed directly from us to a third party, who carried out the work. No intermediaries were in-volved.”
“Right,” Hack said, relieved. “Okay, well, thanks—” “I hope you appreciate the magnitude of what we’ve ac-complished here, Hack. You will remember that when you make your monthly payments.” “Yes, Sergeant Pearson,” Hack said. “Senior Sergeant Pearson,” Pearson said.
John was upbeat on the walk home from the Police. “They’re a very focused organization, all right. John was one hundred percent right about that.”
“Uh-huh,” Hack said. He was thinking about Violet again. John peered at the brochure. “Each case has a single contact. Everything’s encrypted, so employees can’t tell what their col-leagues are working on. Even management can only access job numbers, not names. And it’s the largest Australian-based com-pany in the world! Did you know that?”
“No.” “You want to know why Americans took over the world, Hack? Because they respect achievement. Before this was a USA country, our ideal was the working-class battler, for Christ’s sake. If Australians ruled the world, everyone would work one day a week and bitch about the pay.” He shook his head. “Then there’s the British, who thought there was something wrong with making money. No surprise they ended up kissing the colony’s ass. The Japanese, they think the pinnacle of achievement is a Government job. The Chinese are Communist, the Germans are Socialists, the Russians are broke . . . who does that leave?” “Canada?” “America,” John said. “The United fucking States of Amer-ica, the country founded on free-market capitalizm.
I tell you, those Founding Fathers knew their shit.” Hack was silent.
“So here’s this Australian company,” John said, waving the brochure, “doing the only thing Australians still have a competitive advantage in: keeping their traps shut. Still, it makes our job easier.”
“Does it?” “Sure. It means we only have to kill Pearson.” “Oh.” “Although, when I say ‘we’ . . .” Hack dropped his head.
“It’s in your contract,” John said. “Page eight. A clause called ‘logical extensions.’ ” Hack shook his head wildly. “No, I can’t do this again. Please. I can’t.”
John sighed. “Jesus, Hack, you are the worst goddamn as-sassin I ever heard of. We wanted a nice little rampage, something we could write off as an employee gone postal if the Government caught up with us. Neat and tidy. But no, you had to go and out-source.” He sighed. “Good people get the job done, Hack, no matter what. Remember that. Is this your apartment?”
“Yes,” Hack said. When they reached the top of the stairs, he fumbled for his keys. John reached out and stopped him. “Knock first. We don’t want John getting jumpy.” “Okay.” He hoped John wasn’t the sort to get jumpy. He hoped he hadn’t explored the apartment. An eye appeared at the peephole. “Hack?” It was Violet’s voice. He heard her unlocking. “Hack, there’s a man in here—” “Violet! It’s okay, there’s a guy with me, too. It’s all right.” Silence.
“Hello?” “Who’s that?” John said. He tried the handle. “That’s not John.” “It’s my girlfriend. Violet.”
“Give me the keys,” John said. He wrestled with the door. Fi-nally the door swung open. It was dark inside. ‘John? You there, buddy?” “Violet?” “You go first,” John said. He pushed Hack forward. Hack moved blindly, his hands out before him. He couldn’t think why the lights would be out. And why Violet had answered the—
John said, “Ag!” He turned. John was two steps behind him and Violet had a long knife to his throat. She must have hidden behind the door. “Violet! He’s John Nike! Let him go!” “Girl,” John said, “you want to let go of me, right now. You really do.” “Hack,” Violet said, “pack some clothes. We’re leaving.” She looked at him. “Do it!” Hack jolted into motion. He went into the bedroom and started pulling open drawers. He threw clothes into a bag and showed it to her.
“What about shoes? Hack! And get my computer.” He grabbed some shoes from the bedroom closet and col-lected her notebook. When he emerged, she was patting down John’s pockets.
“Violet,” Hack said, “I really think you’re making a mistake.” “Go,” she said. “Outside.” She pulled a pistol from John’s jacket and looked at him. “That has sentimental value,” John said. Violet pushed him into the living room. He regarded them from the darkness. “Violet—is that your name? This is your last chance. If you do this, you’ll regret it. I guarantee it.” He held out his hand. “Give me back my gun.”
She slammed the door. Hack followed her down the stairs and into the car park. “What’s going on? Where are we going?” “I think I killed a man,” she said. “Oh.” Hack left a respectful silence. “Now drive” she said, and he got in.
Buy couldn’t tell what color the walls were. The sounds of the crowd were dulled and thick, and he kept realizing that his head was heading for the bar just before he reached it. Buy was very drunk. He was going down in flames.
Buy hadn’t been in to work for almost a week. He’d arranged the leave a month ago, knowing that the last week of the financial year would leave him drained; of course, he hadn’t known just how true that would turn out to be. It was Wednesday night, and to-morrow Buy was meant to front up to Mitsui with the stain of a dead girl on his soul, and he absolutely, definitely was not ready for that.
A woman at the bar was looking at him. He squinted at her and she rose and came toward him. He tried to sit straighter on the stool.
“Hi.” “Hi,” Buy said. When she didn’t say anything else, he added, “Can I buy you a drink?” “A Manhattan, please.”
He ordered the drink. “I’m Buy Mitsui.”
“Sandy John Hancock. You got life insurance?” She laughed. “I’m kidding. Are you a stockbroker?”
“Yes,” Buy said. He managed to discern a black skirt and a tight green top. “I wanted to be a stockbroker, once. But I didn’t like the math. Do you have to know math?” “Sometimes,” he said, even though the answer was no, not really.
“Thanks.” He realized she wasn’t talking to him. The bar-man was looking at him expectantly. He dug out a card from his wallet and fumbled it onto the bar.
“Points card?” “No.” Buy had one, but didn’t think he could find it. “You should get one of those,” Sandy said. “I got one last year, after they formed US Alliance. I got a Team Advantage card, too. You earn so much free stuff.” “I don’t need free stuff.” “You must be rich. Are you?” She laughed. “I’m just kid-ding.” “I have an unlimited AmEx. But you have to be able to … recite the numbers … to use it.” He felt his head dipping toward the bar again.
“Unlimited? Wow. So you could, like, buy a whole apart-ment on plastic.” Buy said nothing. He tried to drain his glass, but nothing came out. He set it down on the bar as carefully as he could. “Life insurance,” he said. “It doesn’t actually protect your life, does it? It just gives you money for it.” “Well, life insurance is for your dependents,” Sandy said. “If you have any.”
Buy realized she was waiting for an answer. “I don’t.” “I find that hard to believe.” He saw teeth.
“Mmm,” Buy said. The bar was swaying. “Do you want to see my apartment?” “Does it have a view?”
“Urn,” he said. “Yes, it—” “I’m just kidding,” she said. “Let’s go.” On the street, he asked, “Have you ever done something generous for no reason?” “Sure. Everybody has.” “Once I gave a girl five thousand dollars.” “For no reason?” “Because she wanted it.” “You know, I want five thousand dollars.” Sandy laughed. Buy said nothing. “What did she do?” “She died.” “She died? What, because you gave her money?” “I think so.”
“You mean the one time you did something nice for no rea-son, the person died?” Buy swayed, and she caught his arm. “Let me help you,” Sandy said. “No,” he said, but she did anyway.
It was hard to believe how far Kate could strew the contents of one schoolbag. “Kate!” Jennifer yelled. “Where have you put your drink bottle?” “It’s on the TV” “Why is it on the TV?” She didn’t really want to know. She’d spent twenty minutes trying to make sandwiches with one arm in a sling and when she picked them up all the cheese fell out. It was her first day back at work and Jennifer was being thwarted by slip-pery condiments.
Kate entered the kitchen, carrying her schoolbag. “It makes the reception better.” “Well—go get it, please. We’re both late.”
Kate left. Jennifer wrapped the sandwiches and tucked them into the schoolbag. There were some papers crammed in there, and Jennifer pulled them out. Papers usually meant things she had to sign to avoid getting scammed by a school fund-raising drive. Last year she’d ended up with a crate of Barbie dolls to sell; they were still under the house. Mattel ran good schools, but the mer-chandising was killing her.
The papers weren’t about fund-raising. It looked like Kate’s schoolwork, a paper on penguins. There were drawings and writ-ing and printouts of pictures from the internet. It looked pretty impressive to Jennifer. “Kate?”
Kate reentered. “I’ve got it.” “What’s this?”
“What? Oh. A project. It’s due in today.” “It looks great. Really great.” “Well, I like penguins.” “Do you want a folder for it? It’s going to get crushed if you take it in like this.” “Do we have folders?”
She looked at her watch. “For you, I have folders.” She led Kate into the study and rooted through her desk drawer. There was a Government report on inner-city crime rates in a smart, gray folder, and she tipped it out. “How about this?” “Yeah!”
“You know, we should put the pages behind plastic sheets,” Jennifer said. “They’ll look snazzy.” “Mommy, you said we were late.” “A project this nice,” Jennifer said, “should be behind plastic sheets.” “Okay!” Kate said, excited. She ran to get it.
She was so late to work she missed her own Welcome Back party, which she was grateful for. Since she’d been injured her answering machine had fielded fourteen well wishes from colleagues. It wasn’t totally about her, she knew: it was about Taylor, who had gone to work Friday morning and died in a shopping mall. Jennifer hadn’t done anything except stay alive. But this was a big deal to agents, who had the highest death rate of any occupation except machine operators.
There was an e-mail waiting for her from Legal, about the suit from the Mercedes-Benz dealer whose car she’d fallen on. It said:
Dear Field Agent Jennifer,
Please justify why damage to the property in ques-tion (1 x MERCEDES-BENZ E420 SEDAN) was un-avoidable in the course of carrying out your duties. In particular, please specify:
whether you considered any alternative plans of
action that would not have led to the destruction of this property;
(2) plans; (3)
if so, why you did not pursue these alternative
a statement about your mental state at the time.
She had a lot of experience with allowing memos from Le-gal to grow old and die in her In Box, but this one, she decided, deserved a response. She tapped out:
The alternatives I considered were:
(1) (2) (3)
jumping under a passing bus; shooting myself in both legs; dragging some sorry asses out of the Legal De
partment and throwing them off the third floor.
I did not pursue the first two strategies because they did not guarantee me as much personal injury as landing on a
Mercedes. I did not pursue the third strategy because my mental state at the time must have been severely im-paired.
“My God,” Calvin said, entering. “You’re really back. How’s the shoulder?” “Hi,” she said, turning. “Did you get Hack Nike?” He dropped into a chair. “Come on, Jen, this isn’t Europe. I can’t just get someone. We have no evidence. We have no budget.”
“I asked you to.”
“I assumed you were delirious,” Calvin said. “Look, anyway, I’ve been busy interviewing families, trying to scrounge up fund-ing. So far, zip. And I’m down to the last couple.” “Who?” “Ummm .. .” He slid his chair over to the desk and shuffled some papers. “Jim GE and Mary Shell. Parents of Hayley Mc-Donald’s. Killed at. . .” He looked up.
“Chadstone?” “Maybe you should sit this out.” “Don’t coddle me,” she said. “I can run an interview.” There was a knock on the door. A man stood in the doorway. His suit was so cheap it shone. “Jennifer Government,” he said. “Maybe you think you’re a comedian. Maybe you think this whole situation is funny.” “Who are you?” Calvin said.
“Lemme guess,” Jennifer said. “Legal?” “My department has a job to do, Jennifer. We’re trying to defend your budget. We can do without you sending us insulting replies.”
She said, “Don’t ask me why I chose to fall onto a car and talk about being insulted, you shit. I’m wearing a sling here.”
He reddened. “Well, we still need that information. It may not seem important to you, but this is a serious suit.” She couldn’t help it: she looked at his suit.
“I see,” the lawyer said. “It’s all very, very amusing.” “Ah, look,” Calvin said. “We’ll get you the info you want. We have interviews to conduct now. Okay?” “Fine,” the lawyer said, and left.
“What did you do to him?” “Nothing,” she said. “Go get Hayley’s parents.” He left. She tried to push back her hair before remembering there wasn’t anything left to push: just a crude, dark shock. She missed her hair.
Calvin led Hayley’s parents in and offered them seats. They were shy, clutching coffees in polystyrene cups. She stared at them. It was hard to forget she’d seen their daughter shot. Calvin cleared his throat.
She blinked. ‘Jim, Mary, I’m Field Agent Jennifer Govern-ment. I’m very sorry for your loss. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Government procedure in these circumstances.”
Mary looked lost. Jim said, “You want money.” Jennifer folded her hands on the desk. “In order to pursue the perpetrators, we need funding, yes. The Government’s budget only extends to preventing crime, not punishing it. For a retribu-tive investigation, we can only proceed if we can obtain funding.” She gave them a moment. “I apologize for the question. Can you contribute?”
Mary shifted. Jim said, “I… I’ve had a very bad three months. I lost my job . . .” Silence. Calvin folded his arms.
“She played hockey,” Mary said, then bit her lip. “There were Government agents at the mall,” Jim said. His ears were red. “If you had stopped these people then, Hayley would—we wouldn’t be here.”
“We did our best with the information we had,” Calvin said. “We’re sorry, Jim. We lost an agent in this mess.” Jennifer leaned forward. “I was there. At Chadstone. If any-one should have stopped them, it was me.” His eyes darted to her sling. “And now you want money.”
“Yes.” Silence. “This wasn’t some street shooting.” “No. We think it was planned.” “Then they’ll be hard to catch.” “Yes.”
He nodded. He looked at Mary, then his hands. Then he looked at Jennifer. “Will you try?” “If I have the budget, I will get them. I promise you that.” “All right,” he said. “Then I’ll sell my house.” Her relief was frightening. “Thank you, Jim.”
Jen, that was really bad form,” Calvin said, closing the door. “You know you’re not meant to promise results. No investi-gation is a slam dunk.” “We have funding.” She couldn’t stop jiggling her leg. “And don’t smile like that,” he said. “What’s the matter with you? You’re freaking me out.” “Let’s go pick up Hack,” she said.
Someone was shaking him. “Nnn,” Billy said. “Quit it.” “Get up,” the someone said. “We’re leaving.” He sat up. It was an NRA clone. Black T-shirt, camouflage pants, buzzcut haircut, too much time in the gym: Billy was hav-ing trouble telling them apart. “Leaving where?” “There’s a briefing in the mess. Get dressed and assemble there in fifteen.” “Yes, sir!” Billy said. He had discovered that everyone was much more relaxed if you called them sir. He showered, standing under the water for too long. When he was done, he went back to his bunk and dressed in the crisp pants and T-shirt laid out for him. The T-shirt was black with a big NRA logo on the chest: an AK 47 crossed with a burly arm. Underneath, it said: FREEDOM IS AN ASSAULT RIFLE. That was kind of catchy, Billy thought. The NRA was getting hip.
There was a kid standing guard outside the barracks, and he snapped to attention. Billy attempted a salute, squinting in the sun.
“Good morning, sir!” the kid said. His head was shaved so brutally it looked like someone had gouged his skull. “I am in-formed that you may wish to visit briefing tent 4A, sir!” “Sure, okay.” “If you will accompany me, sir!” Billy followed. The compound was like a mutant Boy Scout camp: all green tents and vehicles and barrels, smack in the mid-dle of nowhere. He saw a troop of soldiers drilling in a field. They reminded him of high school football players with guns. Then a tank rolled past.
“Shit! What’s that?” “That is an Abrams MIA battle tank, sir!” Billy looked around with new respect. Now he understood why the NRA membership fees were so high. The kid led him to a tent at the front of the camp, set back from a dusty road. He held open the flap for Billy. Inside, a dozen men looked up.
“Close the fucking door,” the man at the front said. He was the older man Billy had met in the bush: his name was Yallam. “Mosquitoes like birds in this place.” “Yes, sir!” Billy said. He squeezed onto the end of a bench. “Now we’re all here,” Yallam said. “We depart camp in ex-actly six minutes. Our destination is Melbourne, our target is an employee of the Police, one Senior Sergeant Pearson. We will eliminate the target quickly and quietly, and return to base. Ques-tions?”
A man at the front raised his hand. “Weapons?” “Issued in-flight. Anyone else?”
In-flight? Billy thought. “Yeah,” a soldier said. “What’s with the FNG?” “Bill’s a good man,” Yallam said. “He’s been reassigned here after completing some classified action.” “All right,” the guy said, nodding at Billy. Billy raised his eye-brows in return.
“Other questions?” Billy became aware of a drone outside the tent. He looked around. “All right. Good luck, God speed, straight shooting.”
The men began filing outside. Billy wondered if now was a good time to cut and run. The past few days he’d kept a low pro-file, but now it was sounding as if the NRA expected him to fight, and he definitely wasn’t— A hand fell on his shoulder. “You’re probably wondering why you’re being sent back into action so soon,” Yallam said. “The truth is, we were only assigned this action this morning. Command feels that moving you again might arouse suspicion.” He held Billy’s gaze. “Maybe it’s for the best. Get back on the horse.” The drone had turned into a roar. “Uh, I see.”
“It’s important that you integrate into the team like any other NRA soldier, Bill. Our enemies are looking for you. Now go join your squad.” “Yes, sir!” Billy said. He pushed his way out through the tent flap, thinking: / am surrounded by maniacs. Then he stopped.
There was a green military transport aircraft straddling the road. Fat NRA logos adorned its sides. The noise from its engines was tremendous. The NRA squad was marching up a ramp into its belly.
“Bill!” one of the soldiers shouted. “Come on, move your ass!” This is not skiing, Billy thought. He jogged toward the trans-port.
Hack woke to Violet moving about the bedroom, gathering clothes. He sat up, rubbing his face. “What. . .” “I have to do my software demo.” She was pulling on a short black skirt; already wearing a cream shirt. “You knew this, Hack.”
Hack did know that. “But. .. aren’t we going to the Police? Or the Government?” She blew air through her teeth. “You packed me one pair of underpants. And—” She shook her head. “I don’t have time to go to the Government. You go.”
He bit his lip. “You sure you don’t want to come? Since, I mean, you killed that guy . . .” “You want me to defend myself against a murder charge with two hundred dollars?” “But it was self-defense. It doesn’t matter how much money—”
“Don’t be naive,” Violet said. “Look, if my demo goes well, I’ll have money. Then I can talk to the Government.” “I guess,” Hack said. “Okay.”
She hefted her laptop. “Wish me luck.” “Good luck. And—be careful, okay?” “I will,” she said. “Don’t wake my sister.”
Hack padded out to the kitchen in his dressing gown and made a bowl of cereal. He couldn’t find the sugar, so added some strange, unbranded honey. He sat at the dining table and tried to eat quietly. Violet’s sister had a lot of books. They filled three bookcases, with bizarre titles like An Equal Society and Socialist Thought. Hack wondered what they were about. At ten o’clock he caught a cab downtown to the Govern-ment office, which was a couple of floors in a dingy building that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since 1980. The lobby was huge, though, and crawling with people in scruffy-looking suits who Hack could only assume were Government agents. He felt them looking at him as he walked up to reception, and started sweating. This wasn’t like the Police, with magazines and nice looking women dressed in cop uniforms. The agent behind the desk was doing something to his com-puter. Hack waited patiently. After a while, he cleared his throat. “Just a second,” the agent said. “Sorry.” He waited. “All right.” The agent looked him up and down. “Who are you here to see?” “Um, I don’t know. I’m here because I—I mean my girl-friend—might have killed someone.” “You don’t have an appointment?” “No,” Hack said. “See, there’s this body in my kitchen—” “You’re meant to call first,” the agent said. “To set up an ap-pointment. We can’t drop everything just because you walk in.” “Oh. Sorry.” The agent poked at his computer a bit more. Hack won-dered if he should clear his throat again. The agent said, “You sure this guy’s dead?” “My girlfriend said she thought he was.” “Your girlfriend?” “Yep. She wasn’t sure but—” “Why didn’t she make an appointment?” “Uh,” Hack said, “I don’t know. I just wanted to report—” “Yeah, okay, look,” the agent said. “Take a seat. I’ll try to find someone to talk to you about your alleged dead body.” “Maybe I should come back later,” Hack said. “Just sit down,” the agent said.
He sat on a hard wooden bench for fifty minutes. Then an agent came out and spoke to the desk guy. The desk guy gestured at Hack, and the other agent came over, scratching his stubble. “Hack Nike?”
“Yes.” “You found a dead body somewhere?” “Urn, not exactly,” Hack said. “What happened was—” “Yeah, okay. Come with me.” The agent led Hack down a lot of corridors and into a room that had a table and two chairs and that was it. The walls were glass, and Hack could see agents in other offices moving around, glancing in at him. “You want a coffee?” “No thanks.” “Well, I need one. Hold tight.” He left. Hack jiggled his leg, nervous. There were two agents in an office across the corridor, and one of them had a weird smudge underneath her left eye, like a rectangular bruise. No: a tattoo, a barcode tattoo. That was strange, Hack thought. The Government was meant to be against all that consumer stuff.
“Okay,” the agent said, entering. “So about this body.” He yawned. “Well, he attacked my girlfriend,” Hack said. “I was out and he … he tried to assault my girlfriend. She defended herself and hit him with a crumpet toaster. She thinks she killed him.”
“A crumpet toaster?” “Yep.”
“What is that?” “It’s. . . you know, like an electric toaster. You cook crum-pets in it. It’s better than broiling them.” “Huh,” the agent said. “Can you do bagels in that?”
“Um, no,” Hack said. “Bagels don’t fit in the slots. But you can get bagel toasters, I think.” “How about that,” the agent said. “I had no idea.” “So, anyway,” Hack said. The barcode agent and her part-ner were in the corridor, now, speaking to someone. The woman looked up and met Hack’s eyes. He looked away quickly. “It was self-defense and everything, but I thought I should report it… just in case.”
The agent rubbed his face. “Hack, this is something your girlfriend will have to sort out with the deceased’s lawyers. Con-tact them, negotiate some sort of compensation. It’s not a Gov-ernment matter unless you can’t come to an agreement.” “Oh,” Hack said, relieved. “Okay, sure, I can do that.” The door opened. The woman with the barcode tattoo and her partner were in the doorway. “Hack Nike?” the woman said.
He started. “Yes.” “What’s up, Jen?” the agent said. “Out,” she said. “Now.” Her eyes were fixed on Hack. Hack realized: it had happened. He had made another big mistake.
The first agent left and then nobody spoke. The woman sat across the table from him and her partner stood against the wall, his arms folded. Finally, Hack said, “I just came in to report—”
“Hack Nike, I’m Jennifer Government, Field Agent. This is Calvin Government, Field Agent. We have information that you’re responsible for the illegal initiation of deadly force against up to fourteen persons at various Nike Town stores. Do you understand?” “Ag,” Hack said. He felt his throat closing. “No, no—” “Yes, yes,” Jennifer said. “You arranged for the NRA to shoot a bunch of kids who’d bought Nike Mercurys. Some kind of promotion, right? Get out with your shoes alive and win a trip for two?”
He felt faint. “Wait, I… I want to call my girlfriend.” “She a lawyer, Hack?” Calvin said.
“No, she’s . . .” He couldn’t make himself say unemployed. “She’ll know what to do.” “Sorry,” Calvin said. “No girlfriends.”
“Oh, and we’re recording you,” Jennifer said. “The first guy told you that, right?” “Let me save you some time,” Calvin said. “We know you’re a Merchandising Officer. We know you’re eager for promotion.”
“It sounded like a great idea at the time, right?” Jennifer said. “Kill a few kids, make a few bucks, back slaps all round at the office.”
“And a bonus in your next paycheck—maybe tied to sales growth? Ten thousand, fifty thousand dollars? More?”
“Plus a promotion, of course. You get out of Merc work, into the creative stuff. White-collar gutter jobs are so repetitive, aren’t they, Hack? After a while you go nuts—” “Stop! It wasn’t my idea! I just did what they told me!” “Who?” she said, leaning forward. “Who, Hack?” “There were two of them—they made me—”
He swallowed. “I don’t think I should tell you.” Jennifer leaned back. She looked at Calvin. “They could kill me,” Hack whispered. “If I tell you.” “Aw, we’ll take care of you,” Calvin said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“You’re going to have to tell us who they are, Hack,” Jennifer said. “I can’t! They—they made me sign a contract without read-ing it.”
“Made you? They used force?” Hack was silent.
“No,” she said. “No force. So you voluntarily signed a con-tract without reading it.” “I know that was a mistake—”
“A mistake,” Jennifer said, disgusted. “You dumb shit, why do you think anybody wants you to sign a contract without read-ing it? Because it’s bad, Hack, it’s a bad contract.”
“We’re going to need a copy of that,” Calvin said. Hack dropped his eyes. “I don’t have one.” Silence. When he looked up, they were staring at him. “You don’t understand. They offered me a. job, a job in Mar-keting.” He stopped, choked up. “Hack,” Jennifer said, leaning forward. “It’s time for you to make a decision. You can either help us go after the people re-sponsible for the Nike slayings—”
“Which will expose you to whatever penalties are in that contract,” Calvin said. “And I’m guessing they’re not that you have to bring the cups to the next company picnic, if you know what I mean.”
“Or you can keep your mouth shut,” Jennifer said. “Which will expose you to us.” “I’d hate to land fourteen counts of deadly force against someone who didn’t deserve it, I really would. That’s —” He looked at Jennifer. “Pretty much life, right?”
“For sure. And the financial penalties—well, maybe you can negotiate to pay them off at ten cents on the dollar, something like that. Plenty of crims do that. If you work hard, you can clear your debt in twenty, thirty years.” “I don’t know, Jen,” Calvin said. “Prison housing prices have really jumped lately. Some of these places, you do fifteen years’ la-bor and come out owing them for food and board.”
“I guess in your case it would be academic anyway,” Jennifer said to Hack. “Since you wouldn’t ever get out.” She leaned forward. “Think about it, Hack. A guy like you, reasonable skills, em-ployable—suddenly you’re laying tar in Utah for the rest of your life. And you know the safety record of prison workers. Only last month, those eight guys in—where was it?”
“Wichita Falls,” Calvin said. “Texas. Although I think one of them made it. I mean, obviously he’s all messed up from the scald-ing, but I think he’s still alive.”
“You can take freedom for granted, Hack,” Jennifer said, “until you’re living in a cell and you have to ask permission every time you want to take a shit. Don’t you think?” “Marketing guys,” Hack whispered. “It was John and John, from Guerrilla Marketing.” Jennifer leaned forward. “John Nike? Vice-President?”
He nodded dumbly. “Brown eyes, brown hair, flat face, John Nike?” “Yes.” “Good boy, Hack,” Calvin said. “You won’t regret this.” Jennifer dragged her chair closer to him. “Let’s start from the beginning.” She smiled. It was the first time Hack had seen her do that. She looked almost tender. “Tell me everything.”
When Violet arrived at the ExxonMobil building, they gave her a CONTRACTOR badge, which she pinned to her jacket lapel. Her escort was a kid in a white short-sleeved shirt and pants so cheap his knees reflected. Violet was disappointed. Geeks didn’t dress that way anymore, or rather, successful geeks didn’t. Even Violet knew it was worth investing in impressive threads.
“I heard about what you’re doing,” the kid said in the eleva-tor. “It sounds pretty cool. But it won’t work. Eight months ago, maybe. We had a whole bunch of attacks, denial of service, e-bombs, phreaking, the works. Then management gave us a ton of money to upgrade everything.” He led her down a corridor and opened a door. Violet went in. There were computers and wires and crap everywhere. Four men sat around the boardroom sized table, all in front of keyboards except one, who was therefore in charge. He was very large and didn’t smile.
“Violet.” He extended his hand. “I’m Rendell ExxonMobil. This is my team: James, Peter, Saqlain, Hunter.” She nodded at them. “If you don’t mind, let’s get started. We have fifteen min-utes before our next applicant.” She took a seat at the thick table and snapped open her laptop case. The geeks slid their chairs inward, preparing to do battle. She powered on her laptop, snapped in an RJ45 connec-tor. “Do you want to give me a login, or should I do it the hard way?”
Rendell looked at Hunter, who was so thin it was like Rendell had been stealing his food. “An ordinary employee password?”
“Yes.” “I’ll spot you that.” “I can crack it if you want me to.” “It’s trivial.”
“That’s why I’m asking.” Hunter managed to sound gracious. “I’ll ghost your ma-chine. User is ‘applicants,’ pass is the same.” Applications began streaming into Violet’s laptop, trans-forming it into a standardized, centrally managed ExxonMobil PC. While she waited, she glanced at the beige box humming be-hind her. It had the dimensions and aesthetics of a refrigerator: a Hewlett-Packard Unix machine. “This is your server here?” “That’s it.” “And we’re isolated from the company network?” “We’re safe enough.” “I strongly suggest you physically isolate this room from the rest of the network.” They locked eyes for a while. She had to resist a sigh. Violet wasn’t interested in comparing dick size with skinny geeks. “Unplug it,” Rendell said. The kid, James, crawled under the desk. “Okay, got it.” “Buckle up,” Violet said, and logged in. There was a little icon on her desktop called Fizz, in the shape of a soda can. She clicked it. Her machine said: bing! A window appeared: McAfee Anti-Virus: WARNING! McAfee has detected a possible
virus on your computer. Virus Type: unknown. Files infected: Fizz.exe. Delete—Fix—Ignore.
“Game over,” Hunter said across the table, pushing back his chair. “Sorry, you’re dead, Violet. Thanks for playing.” “You shouldn’t have let him ghost your machine,” James said. He was looking over her shoulder. “He installed our virus checker.” She looked at her screen a while longer. When the network activity stopped, she closed the lid and rested her elbows on the table. “And not only did we bust your virus,” Hunter said, “but we got a copy of its signature, so we can spot it if it shows up any-where else. You’re history.” Violet glanced at the hub, a squat, plastic box routing traffic between the server and PCs. Its green lights were flashing. “So my virus is getting transmitted to the server.” “No, not your virus. Its signature. Big difference.” The hub’s lights were increasingly active. The geeks eyed it. Flash-flash-flash-flash. Violet said, “Then your server transmits my virus to the checkers on every PC. Right?” “No, no, no.” Hunter’s eyes flicked to the hub. “Virus check-ers don’t store actual viruses. They store patterns.” “My virus checker is updating,” one of the other geeks said. “Mine, too.” “It’s meant to!” Hunter said. “Be cool, guys. It’s inoculating us.” “You have a lot of faith in your checker,” Violet said, “for a product with buffer-overrun issues.” Hunter stared. “Last chance,” she said.
It was a small noise, and to anyone but tech-heads, hardly noticeable. From each PC: chik-chik-chik-chik-chik— “Shit!” Saqlain said. “Disk activity—” “Me too—” The machines crashed together. The geeks stared at dark screens. Each computer beeped simultaneously, rebooting. Violet knew what they were looking at now, a screen that said: BOOT DISK FAILURE: INSERT SYSTEM DISK. This meant that either someone had unscrewed each computer and removed the hard drive, or the disks had been trashed so thoroughly the computers couldn’t tell if they were still there.
“Jesus, she wiped the master boot record!” “Did you go through the virus checker?” Saqlain asked, as-tounded. “Did you send a worm through the virus
She swiveled her chair to see the lights on the HP server lock up. When that was done, she turned to Rendell. “Interested?”
Rendell looked from his server to his dead PCs. “It could have been your whole company,” Violet said. “Not just this room. You tell me: how vulnerable do you want to be?”
“Whoa, whoa,” Hunter said. “You know, I hate to ruin the party, but we don’t need to buy anything from you. I can recover this thing. Two seconds of disk activity, it’ll be somewhere.” “Whatever you can recover from those drives,” she said, “you’re welcome to.” Silence. Rendell lifted his chin. “James? Cancel our other applicants, please.”
Buy woke up feeling like someone had rearranged his intes-tines. He staggered into the bathroom. On the mirror in red lip-stick was:
HOPE YOU’RE FEELING BETTER, SLEEPYHEAD! CALL ME! SANDY
He sank to the cool tiles. Buy didn’t think he’d be calling Sandy John Hancock. He crawled into the shower instead. This was not going to be a good day.
He arrived at Mitsui very late, which for a stockbroker was not just improper but obscene. The stock markets had been twenty-four-hour for several years now, and Hamish would be an-grily waiting for Buy to relieve him. The elevator doors opened and he walked between the cu-bicles. Hamish jumped to his feet, snapping closed
his briefcase. “Sorry, Hamish, I—” “That’s all right.” He was looking at Buy oddly. His whole reaction was odd. “They told me what happened. You don’t even have to be here, we can get a temp—” “No, I’m fine.” “You sure?” “Yeah.” “Okay. Well, good luck.” Buy watched Hamish leave, then sat down. He felt eyes watching him and turned. Suddenly a lot of brokers were frown-ing at their screens and flicking lint off their pants. He turned back to his screen.
He looked at it for a long time. Something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. He clicked through a few pages of overnight financial summaries, but kept losing focus on the screen. His at-tention was drifting back to Friday night. His phone rang, and he looked at it, abruptly frightened. He didn’t want to answer it.
He felt sweat on his forehead. Brokers burned out some-times; everyone knew somebody who had derailed. It was a terri-fying idea, that you could lose the motivation to keep going. That everything that used to define and sustain you could collapse into meaninglessness.
An hour later, Buy felt a hand on his shoulder. He was star-ing into space. It was Cameron. “Want to talk?”
He’d only been inside Cameron’s fishbowl office a couple of times. Everyone outside could see you, so you knew they were speculating about you. Not the office for a paranoid, Buy decided.
“You don’t have to be here today,” Cameron said. “You know that, right?” “I don’t get paid if I’m not.”
Cameron shrugged. “Even so.” Buy said, “I’m fine.”
“How many trades have you made this morning?” Buy was pretty sure the computer on Cameron’s desk could answer that question. He was pretty sure it already had. “None.”
“I’m going to help you, now,” Cameron said. “All right? I’ve heard a whisper that ExxonMobil could be the target of a takeover.”
“ExMo?” “The word is that Shell likes the idea of ExMo at up to forty-seven.” He thought. “Shell is… half ExMo’s size. It can’t be true.” “I think it is.”
Buy considered. This was a huge tip, even more valuable than the NRA information Sami had given him. If he remem-bered right, ExMo was trading around thirty-one. Cameron was offering him sixteen dollars a share. “Then thanks.”
“Thank me by making trades. You’re a good broker, Buy. Don’t let yourself get thrown.” “I won’t.” “Good. Now get out there and trade.” Buy left the office and walked down the staircase, trying to ignore the eyes on him. He sat down and clicked for the latest ExMo price. It was even lower than he’d thought: just above thirty.
He picked up the phone handset. The dial tone hummed in his ear. His hand shook. He felt sweat on his forehead. He tried to force himself to focus on what was important. Seventeen dollars a share. Seventeen
dollars a share.
After a while, he put the phone down. His fingers felt like ice. He could feel it in his gut: it had happened. He had burned out. Buy had lost it.
She requested an arrest warrant right away, but that was wishful thinking. She was in the car with Calvin when Elise, her boss, radioed. “What’s this application? Are you trying to create paperwork?”
“No, Elise,” Jennifer said. “We have reason to believe John Nike—” “Because one suspect says so? You need more than that.”
“Right, but we’re going to interview this Police officer and we’ll get him to confirm meeting with John Nike. Then we—”
“So talk to me after that. Right?” “Right,” Jennifer said, and hung up the radio. “Shit.” “Well, it was worth a shot,” Calvin said. “Hey, you know who works around here? That Mitsui stockbroker. Want to inter-view him?”
“Yeah. Sure.” He changed lanes. “So where do you know John Nike from?” She blinked. “What?”
“The way you reacted in the interview room, it seemed like you knew him.” “Oh,” she said. “I just—you know, I’ve dealt with him before.”
“When?” “Hey,” she said. “Here’s a question for you. Apparently someone told the hospital shrink I’m not interested in dating any-more. Any idea who that was?”
“Uh,” Calvin said. “I might have said . . . you hadn’t dated in a while . . .” He glanced at her. “I was just trying to help.”
“I date plenty,” she said. “Okay, okay. Fine.”
“I do,” she said. “I wasn’t arguing.” “I’ve been busy, that’s all.” The radio said, “Unit three-three-nine, come back.” Jennifer picked up. “Three-three-nine.”
“It’s Gary. We’re at that apartment you wanted us to check out, Hack Nike’s? There’s no dead body here.” She looked at Calvin. He shrugged. “You sure?”
“You want us to start cutting up furniture?” “No.” She didn’t have the budget to replace furniture. “Any sign of a struggle?” “The bed’s unmade.” “In the kitchen. There’s meant to be a dead man in the kitchen.” “The kitchen’s spotless. It’s the cleanest room in the apart-ment.” “Okay. Thanks.” She hung up the radio.
Calvin said, “You think Hack lied to us?” “He never said he saw the body. He said his girlfriend told him it was there. This Violet.” “So either Hack’s lying, or Violet’s lying—” “Or John Nike cleaned up the scene.” “Hmm,” Calvin said. “I’ll take door number three.” “Shit!” she said. “That asshole!”
Calvin looked at her. “What?”
“So where did you say you knew John Nike from?” “Why does it matter?”
“I’m trying to work out why this case is so important to you. Why you won’t take time off, even though—” “He killed fourteen people. Isn’t that enough?”
“To explain the look you get? No.” “I don’t have a look.” “Now you’re getting irritable,” Calvin said, “I think you used to work with him. Before you joined the Government. And I think your mysterious source is someone you used to work with, too.”
Jennifer pressed her fingers to her temples. “I’ve never worked for Nike. Okay? Now drop it.” “Hmm,” Calvin said. “Well, you sure didn’t get that tattoo in the Government.”
Buy Mitsui took a long time to come down. Jennifer amused herself by reading the wall hangings. There were case studies up there, with pictures of suits shaking hands under headlines like Mitsui & Reebok: Float Debuts Up 118%! It reminded her of the photos they had in casinos: elderly couples in front of slot machines with improbable readouts. JACKPOT!
“I’m Buy,” a man said, and she turned. He was tall and good-looking, which surprised her. It had been a while since she’d dated. ‘Jennifer Government. Thanks for your time.” “I thought I’d been through this. At the mall. I don’t see why—” Calvin said, “Somewhere we can talk?”
His shoulders dropped. “There’s a room through here.” They followed him. The meeting room was big and taste-fully lit, the chairs heavy and wooden. There was nothing like this in the Government. “Nice digs.” “Our business sells intangibles,” Buy said. He took a seat op-posite her. “Nothing you can touch. So we like to appear very . . .” He knocked on the table.
“Rich?” “Solid.” He smiled, but it was a strange, disconnected smile; it worried Jennifer a little. Buy Mitsui was not running on all cylin-ders.
Calvin flipped open his notepad. “You were at the Chad-stone Wal-Mart mall last Friday?” “Yes.” “But you didn’t see anything.” “I got there too late. The girl. . . she . ..” “Take your time,” Jennifer said.
“I’m sorry. I’m not.. . The girl died. I couldn’t help her. I tried.” “You didn’t see who shot her?”
“I didn’t see anything. I told the Government people this last Friday.” “Right,” Calvin said, flipping some more. “You gave the girl some money? Why was that?” “I wanted to.” “But you’d never met her before?” “No.”
Calvin paused. He was waiting for her to come in, Jennifer knew: to run a flanking formation, to squeeze from
the other side. Instead, she said, “I was there that night.” Buy’s eyebrows rose. “At Chadstone?” “They peeled me off the top of a Mercedes.” His eyes widened. Then he laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t rec-ognize you. You are . . . much improved.” She looked down, a little flustered. “It’s a pretty fucking strange coincidence, you giving Hayley money to buy the shoes she was killed for, don’t you think?”
She regretted the words immediately. Buy’s face fell. “I wish more than anything I had never met her.” Calvin said, “Did you see any of the assailants that night?” “No.” “Anyone who looked suspicious? At all?” “No.”
Silence. “So, the only suspicious thing you saw that night was your-self. Is that right?” “I suppose so.”
Calvin looked at her. She nodded. “All right,” he said. “Then we’re done. For now.” Jennifer stood. Buy was staring at the tabletop. On impulse, she sat again. “Hey,” she said. He looked up.
“I understand how you feel.” He said nothing. She slid her card across the table to him. “If there’s anything else, call me. All right?”
He nodded wordlessly, looking at the card. She touched his hand across the table. Then they left, pass-ing through the lobby and exiting to bright sunshine. The door wheezed pneumatically behind them.
“Goddamn, Jennifer Government,” Calvin said finally. “There may be hope for you yet.” “Oh, shut up,” she said. “Let’s go talk to Pearson.”
Billy NRA’s plan was very simple: the second he could, he was going to run like hell. The longer this charade continued, the more fucked-up things were getting.
The inside of the plane had not seats but benches and straps, and when they were in the air, instead of getting peanuts and Cokes with too much ice they were given Vektor R4 assault rifles. It was the heaviest gun Billy had ever held. That somebody thought he might need it scared the crap out of him.
They landed somewhere rural and piled out of the plane and into the back of two Ryder rental trucks. More benches and straps. There was some chatter, none of it making much sense, and Billy stared at his black boots.
He was starting to think he’d be better off if he was still lost in the bush. The truck idled for two hours, then took off with such a start that Billy fell into the guy next to him. “Sorry,” Billy said, and the guy said, “You’re right, buddy.” But Billy was not right. He was not right at all.
The squad leader pulled himself to his feet. “We are now at T minus two minutes! Our primary objective when we reach the target is to maintain a safe operating perimeter, inside of which Team B will operate! Is this clear?” “Yes, sir!” the men shouted. Billy didn’t shout anything, but the word “perimeter” was the most interesting thing he had heard all day.
The truck slowed, then stopped. The leader cracked open the doors and peered out while everybody else sat tight, fingering their Vektors. It was becoming clear to Billy there was going to be some fairly serious law breaking going on here.
“Go, go, go!” the leader said, and threw open the doors. Billy immediately saw two things: first, they were on a leafy, reasonably urban street, and second, someone was about to have a very bad traffic accident. The car was a late-model Ford, and the second Ryder truck plowed into it, catching its rear. The Ford made two full, smoking-tire revolutions, then bent itself around a telephone pole.
“Move!” someone yelled, and Billy realized he was gaping like an idiot. Some of the NRA soldiers were running toward the wrecked car, keeping low, as if they expected the guy inside to jump out with guns blazing. Two others were carrying something from the second Ryder truck, something like the jaws of life. The largest group of soldiers were dragging metal barriers across the south side of the road. Billy started jogging north. “Hey, you! South side, south side!”
“I’ll cover the north!” he yelled back. “Just gonna check it out!” He heard footsteps behind him. He put on a burst of speed, but with the Vektor it was like trying to run with a motorcycle around his neck. A soldier grabbed his arm. He was a young guy, like Billy, but without the terror. “What’s the matter? South side, man!”
“Dude, I really have to go,” Billy said. “No offense, but—” Behind him, the jaws of life screeched. Billy jumped. NRA guys were tearing into the Ford, or what was left of it. For the first time, Billy noticed a Police insignia on its side. He saw someone moving inside it. “Yallam’s going to hear about this. Now get your ass back to the perimeter!” “Look, this is all a big mistake,” he said, and then there were shots and Billy hit the deck. He raised his head. The young soldier was looking down at him contemptuously. The NRA soldiers were jogging away from the smashed Ford, holstering weapons. Billy re-alized they’d just accomplished their mission. He felt sick. “Hostiles from the south! Hostiles inbound!”
“Come on! They need us!” The young soldier ran back toward the line of soldiers.
“No thanks,” Billy said. He got to his feet. “See you later, man.” Three dark blue cars crested the hill. They were fast and low and had some kind of rotary cannon set into their hoods: he vaguely recollected seeing them in the Police TV advertisements. The NRA soldiers opened fire. Then the Police car cannons clamored and suddenly there were bullets everywhere, bouncing off the cars, chewing up the road, and passing much too close to Billy’s body.
“Fuck, fuck!” one of the jaws-of-life guys yelled. He was run-ning to the second Ryder, which struck Billy as a good idea, too. He jumped into the back of it with the jaws guy and two other sweaty NRA soldiers. Inside, bullets like a hailstorm beat against the truck’s side, creating alarming indentations. Someone up front revved the engine and the vehicle lunged forward.
“Team A, come back, come back,” the jaws guy said into his radio. “Team A’s gone, man,” a soldier said. “Those cop cars! They annihilated us!” “They can’t get past the blockade,” the jaws guy said. “They’ll have to go around, do a full block. We’ve got maybe ninety seconds to lose them.”
Billy decided he was going to stick close the jaws guy. This dude knew what he was doing. The truck bounced and lurched. Billy clutched at the strap. Then he felt them slowing.
The jaws guy said, “What’s going on?” “Don’t ask me,” Billy said, but the man was talking to his ra-dio. The radio said something like: Crrsshwfss
“Right,” the jaws guy said. He looked at the rest of them. “Okay. Now we have a problem.”
“It’s a good deal,” Calvin said, overtaking a Chrysler. “It’s not like I actually spend more. I buy what I would have anyway, but from US Alliance companies.”
“Mmm,” Jennifer said. “You buy your computer from IBM, your gas from Shell, use AT&T for calls. . . soon you’re getting gift vouchers, for like, fifty bucks. And if you buy a car—”
“I don’t like loyalty programs.” “Well, you could go with Team Advantage,” Calvin said. “But US Alliance has twice as many companies that are number one in their industry.”
“What is that, from their brochure?” The car radio said: “Field Agents Jennifer and Calvin, please identify your position.” She picked up. “Downtown, King and Flinders.”
“Proceed to corner Chapel and Inkerman streets, St. Kilda. Crime in progress, extreme caution advised.” “That’s where we’re going. What’s the situation?” “Distress call from the Police. One Senior Sergeant Pearson Police is under attack. Instigators may be NRA.” “Fuck!” She dropped the radio. “Go!”
Calvin gunned the engine, weaving through traffic. She flicked on the siren and they roared down St. Kilda Road. “We shouldn’t have stopped to talk to that stockbroker.” “Inkerman Street is, what, the—” “Two more blocks,” she said. “See where that Ryder truck came from?” “Yep.” He slowed and killed the siren.
The truck passed them, heading in the opposite direction. Its front had sustained some damage, she saw: the grille was smashed in. She frowned. “Turn around.”
“What?” “Let’s pull over that truck.” “For what, being in an accident?” “Just do it.” He swung the wheel. She chewed her lip. The truck had been through more than a traffic accident: its side looked speckled and pocked. “Are our lights working?” “Yep.” “So why aren’t they stopping?” “Don’t know. I’ll go around front, cut them off.” “Yeah, okay,” she said, and the truck’s rear door opened. “Oh, shit,” Calvin said.
She saw men in camouflage pants and black T-shirts. Calvin dragged the wheel left. Bullets thudded into the car. She heard a tire blow. The steering wheel jumped through Calvin’s hands. White palings from a picket fence bounced off the windshield and then she caught a glimpse of a thick tree.
After a while, she realized that Calvin was talking on the ra-dio. She fumbled at her belt. “Jen. You okay?”
She found the latch and tumbled out of the car. Her head felt thick and heavy. She looked around and saw a tree in the mid-dle of their car’s hood. She walked unsteadily toward the road.
“Backup’s on the way, Jen! We wait here!” She stopped in the middle of the road. Calvin came after her. “Jen, come sit down. You’re bleeding.” She touched her forehead. Her fingers came away red and sticky. That meant clotting. “You think they got Pearson?”
“I guess so.” A white Taurus crested the rise. Jennifer held out her ID un-til it stopped. The driver was a young man,
unshaven. His eyes flicked nervously. “Yeah?” “I want to commandeer your vehicle for Government busi-ness. We pay three hundred dollars per hour of use, plus any nec-essary repairs. Also, you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped prevent crime in your community.”
“Three hundred up front?” “No,” Jennifer said. “Sorry, I don’t carry large amounts of cash with me on the off chance I’ll need to commandeer some-body’s car.”
“Jen,” Calvin said. “Please, let’s not blow our budget on this.” “No, wait,” the kid said, getting out. “Okay, sure. Three hundred an hour?” “Right,” she said. “Calvin, will you take this person’s de-tails?” ‘Jen! You can’t even drive!” He was almost right: she could hardly drive. But the car was an automatic, and she could use her bad arm to hold the wheel, if not turn it. Jennifer stomped on the accelerator.
She figured the NRA would be putting as much distance be-tween themselves and the scene as possible, but they’d avoid the freeways, which had choke points. That pretty much left Dandenong Road, and she felt confident guessing they’d head out of the city, not into it. She accelerated through the traffic.
Within a minute, she spotted the truck. She moved up be-hind it and waited until they got onto a straight stretch of road. Then she wound down the window, held the steering wheel with her knees, and leaned out with her .45. The driver must have seen her: he swerved before she’d squeezed off a shot. If he’d braked, she would have been screwed, would have slammed right into him. But he tried to zigzag, and since Ryder rental trucks weren’t the most maneuverable vehicles in the world, she was able to take out three tires, one after the other. The truck ran up the sidewalk and burst through a store-front.
Jennifer sailed past and started a U-turn. Her bad shoulder made it harder than she’d anticipated, and by the time she’d swung around, NRA guys were spilling out of the truck.
She hit the brakes and ducked, and the windshield im-ploded. Bullets chewed through the driver’s seat, filling the car with a snowstorm of yellow foam. She squeezed down among the pedals, then poked her pistol over the dash and fired randomly. The gunfire stopped. She grabbed at the rearview mirror, popping it free, and clutched it to her chest, breathing hard.
It was still quiet. She raised the mirror and swung it around. There were three NRA guys by the truck.. . and one running low, toward the car. She dropped the mirror, picked up the pistol, and fired three shots. A man yelled out. She raised her eyebrows. Back to mirror: one NRA guy, crawling away and clutching his leg. “Hot damn,” she said.
The gunfire started again, peppering her car. Jennifer found the radio and got Government agents en route, then settled into a regular exchange of fire that she hoped would keep everybody en-tertained. The important thing was to fire often enough so they could all feel comfortable that they were engaged in a pitched gun battle and not feel the need to do anything overly tactical, like ad-vance on her.
When she heard cars, she raised the mirror again. A line of black Cadillac SUVs was stopping by the wrecked Ryder truck. Doors opened and closed. “Where’s my backup?” she yelled at the radio. “They’re getting away!” “ETA four minutes, Field Agent.” Jennifer dropped it in dis-gust. When she heard the cars start to move away, she yanked open the door and fell out onto the road.
It was already too late. She lined up the wheels of the last car and fired again and again. She hit the road twice, blew in its rear windshield, and popped open its trunk, which would have been an amazing shot if that’s what she was trying to accomplish. But it wasn’t. “Shit!”
Something moved to her right. She turned. A man was sprinting down an alley: she saw camouflage pants and a heavy rifle.
“Freeze! This is the Government!” He kept running. She aimed above his head and fired. He dove into the asphalt so hard that she thought she’d ac-cidentally clocked him. But she jogged over and he was alive. He was covering his head with his hands.
“Please, don’t shoot!” She executed an academy-approved arm twist that finished up with her knees in his back and her gun against his head. “You kill any girls last Friday? Visit any Nike Town stores? You good friends with John Nike?” “I’m not with them! I swear, I’m not with them!” “We’ll see about that,” she said.
Hack took deep breaths, gulping air. It felt so good to be out! What that Jennifer Government had said was true: you didn’t appreciate freedom until it was too late. It really put things in perspective, an experience like this. It made you realize what was important.
He couldn’t feel depressed, even though he knew there was a good chance he’d lose his job, and that debt to the Police wasn’t going anywhere. Hack was happy to be alive.
He caught a cab to take him to Violet’s sister’s house, then changed his mind halfway and got out at Sears in Fitzroy. He wanted to buy Violet a present: something to show her how he felt. This experience had brought them closer together, he thought. He stopped. Sears had a jewelry section. Rows of glass-encased stones and rings gleamed at him. He hesitated, then entered. “Help you?” a salesgirl said. She had curly red hair. “Um . . .” Hack said. “Do you have any .. .” “Lemme guess,” she said. “Engagement rings?” “How did you know?” “You look nervous,” the girl said, and smiled.
He clutched the package, lining up at the register behind a large woman who was buying a tricycle. “Surely you can wrap it,” the woman said to the checkout boy. “You have a wrapping service; I want this wrapped.” “I can only wrap smaller items here,” the boy said patiently. “Something this size you have to take to the wrappers on level three.” “It didn’t say that on the advertisement.” “I’m really sorry,” the boy said.
The woman pushed past Hack, poking him in the arm with one of the tricycle’s handlebars. Hack protected his package. He had been to the wrapping desk first, even though his item was small.
The boy scanned Hack’s box. The price materialized on the orange readout: $649.95. “You got a US Alliance card?” “Yes.” He handed it over. “Do you have a Team Advantage card, too?” “What?”
The boy pointed to a bright blue badge on his chest. It said: THROW AWAY YOUR T.A. CARD AND SAVE! ASK ME HOW. “If you quit the Team Advantage program, you get fifteen percent off from all US Alliance— affiliated stores for the next two months. Got a T.A. card?”
“No. I work for Nike.” “That’s okay. If you stick with US Alliance and don’t get a T.A. card, you can accrue points too.” Hack blinked. That sounded all right. “How do I register?”
“Like this,” the boy said, and pushed a button. The register chatted out a couple of extra lines onto Hack’s receipt. “Thanks for shopping at Sears. Have a nice day.”
“Thanks,” Hack said. He took his package and walked out of the store. On impulse, he turned to look back at the registers. There were thirty or forty stations, lined up like battlements. Each was staffed by a clean-cut girl or boy in Sears uniform. Their blue badges winked at him.
Violet’s sister, Claire, was watching TV when he arrived home. Hack had actually known Claire first: he had met Violet through her. Claire was tall and had long hair and brown eyes and a nice smile. She was shier than Violet; more like him. For a while Hack had thought he was in love with her. But then Violet came along. Violet was pretty determined.
“Hi.” “Oh! Hi, Hack. Where have you been?” “I had to see the Government.” Claire’s eyes widened. “Are you in trouble?” “No. Not really. Is Violet home?”
She shook her head. “I thought she was with you.” “She had a business meeting today. If she’s not back. . . maybe it went well.” He looked at his watch. It was pretty late.
“Have you eaten? I can cook something, if you want.” “Oh—no, thanks.” He felt embarrassed. Claire was always offering to do stuff for him. “Can I call my apartment? Maybe she’s there.” “Of course.” “Thanks.” He went into the kitchen and dialed. The phone rang and rang.
Violet had never flown before, and Rendell, the fat Exxon-Mobil manager, thought that was hilarious. “Not even interstate?” he asked, and shook his head, amazed. Rendell had two million frequent flier miles. She wished she could fly without Rendell, who took up the full girth of his extra-wide business-class seat and leaned into her when he wanted to talk, which was all the time. She had a paper-back novel, selected from a range the flight attendant had brought around, but Rendell wouldn’t leave her alone with it. After four-teen hours, all she wanted was for Rendell to choke to death on an airline-issue peanut.
He leaned across. “You can plug into the web from here, you know. There’s a jack in the armrest.” Violet looked. There was, too.
“Although, with your virus—I mean, you’ve got that thing under lock and key, right? Maybe you shouldn’t plug in.” “I really doubt the customer network is connected to the flight controls,” Violet said. “Even so.” Rendell smiled nervously.
“Fine.” She didn’t want to e-mail with him looking over her shoulder anyway. She raised her novel. His arm pressed against hers. “There are phones, though. If you want.”
She looked at him. “If there’s anyone you need to tell you’re en route to Texas. Don’t worry about the cost, it’s taken care of.” “There’s no one I need to call,” Violet said. She didn’t want to call home with him there, either.
She was surprised by Dallas’s ugliness. Even with the sun rising behind it, the city looked as if it had been built to withstand bombardment. She’d never seen so much concrete in one place.
“What do you think?” Rendell said in the cab. “Nice, huh?” “Where are the trees?” “There are some parks.” He craned his neck. “I think you can see one …” A heavy truck roared alongside them. The cab darkened like it was descending into the earth. Violet put her fin-gers in her ears. “Past that traffic accident.”
She looked. There was a snarl of turnpike ahead, and tow trucks were extracting cars and pickups from one another. The cab driver slowed to avoid a shredded tire that had rolled onto the road. Violet didn’t see any park. “See it?”
“Yes,” she said. “Which is the ExxonMobil building?” “ExMo’s out of town, in Irving. It’s about a thirty-minute drive.” “Oh.” “You’re going to be sick of me by the end of all this,” he said, smiling. She tried to smile back. “I thought you’d want to see Dallas. This is where the President was assassinated, you know.”
She looked at him in surprise. “The President of Exxon-Mobil?” “No. The Government President. Kennedy.” “Oh,” she said, turning back to the window. “You’re probably too young to have heard of him,” Rendell said, and Violet bit her lip until it hurt.
The ExxonMobil man was tall, with bright blue eyes. He stood, smiling, and extended his hand. His mouth showed teeth, but his eyes never changed. “Violet. Please, sit.”
She took an ornate chair across the table from him. Rendell took a seat beside her. She couldn’t escape him anywhere.
“I’m Nathaniel ExxonMobil, CEO.” Behind him was a door with a snarling tiger, the ExMo logo, engraved in frosted glass. “I appreciate you coming on such short notice.”
“No problem.” She felt thirsty. “We’re going to have a conversation now. But first, I want you to understand some ground rules.” “I’m happy to sign a nondisclosure agreement.”
“I don’t want you to sign an NBA.” He smiled. “I prefer to do this by word of agreement.” “Oh.” Violet felt her heart sink. This was already deviating from the little she knew about how business worked. “Contracts force people to do things, Violet, and nothing good comes from force. People achieve great things by voluntarily working together for mutual gain. Does that sound all right to you?” “Sure,” she said, but she could feel the bridge creaking be-neath her feet, the boards splintering. An NDA was standard; everybody used them. She didn’t think Nathaniel would talk to her without one unless he had a better way of ensuring her si-lence.
He folded his hands on the table. “I understand you have some software that can take down a company-wide computer net-work. Is that right?”
“Yes.” “Any company’s network?” “Pretty much.” “If you wanted to attack my network at a particular time, on a particular day, could you do that?” “Um, no. The software can only spread when the clients re-quest an update from the server. That could be immediately; it could be next week.”
Rendell leaned forward. “But in Melbourne, it happened so fast—” “You guys were ultra-paranoid, you had your virus checkers all geared up. The more active the checker is, the faster my soft-ware spreads.”
“Ah,” Nathaniel said. “I didn’t realize that,” Rendell said. “Sorry, Nathaniel, I just assumed—” Nathaniel ignored him. “Violet, for this software to be use-ful to me, I need to be able to control the time at which it acti-vates.”
“But if you want to simulate an attack, you can—” “Let’s just agree I need to control the timing,” Nathaniel said. “Shall we?” And Violet realized Nathaniel ExxonMobil wasn’t interested in simulating anything. He didn’t want her software for defensive purposes. He didn’t want to shore up his I.T. security. She felt a tinge of fear. “What if we could gain access to a key server?” Nathaniel said. “Could you control the timing then?” “Then—yes, you could load it and tell the server to push an update. But if you can access a server, why would you go to the trouble of—” “We could gain temporary access. If we have to.” She took a breath. “Well, if you can do that, you can control the timing.”
Silence. Rendell said, “How would you like to become an employee of ExxonMobil, Violet?” She jumped. “I’m not here to become anyone’s employee. I just want to license my software.” “We’ll license it,” Nathaniel said. “And pay you well for it. But I want your services to implement it, too.” Her gut tightened. “Implement how?” “We gain access to the server, you load your software and spread it through the network.” “You mean remotely?” Violet said, although she didn’t think he did.
Nathaniel said, “I won’t risk doing anything remotely. It’ll have to be on-site.” “But—on-site—how will—” “A small group of our security personnel will enter the tar-get building,” he said, “and take steps to allow you passage to the server.”
She gripped the seat. “I thought you didn’t believe you could accomplish anything by force.” “A-ha-ha,” Nathaniel said, amused. “You’ve seen right through me, Violet ExxonMobil.”
Billy NRA was giving Jennifer a headache. She rubbed her forehead. “You’re saying these NRA guys just
“They had guns. I wasn’t going to tell them they’d made a mistake. And then they put me on the plane—I had no chance to get away.” He looked from Jennifer to Calvin. “You gotta believe me.”
She said, “This is the biggest horseshit story I ever heard in my life.” “You say the NRA approached you because of your shoot-ing,” Calvin said. “Are we talking sniper shooting? Who’d they want you to assassinate?”
“Pearson Police, obviously,” Jennifer said. “No!” Billy said. “That was some other NRA guys. These guys thought I was someone else, they thought I was someone called Bill!”
“So where’s the real Bill?” Calvin said. “Who is he?” “How should I know?”
“And you never heard anybody mention the name John Nike?” “For the fifth fucking time, I’ve never heard of John Nike! I just got put in a plane and sent here and then people are getting chopped up by cars with machine guns on the front and—”
“Quiet!” Jennifer said. “Calvin?” He dragged his chair over. Billy rubbed his face. “Look, can I get a smoke? I’m—” “Shut your pie-hole.” She leaned close to Calvin. “What about the NRA guy Taylor tagged?” “He wasn’t called Bill.” “Any of the victims?” “There are no dead Bills.” “So this guy’s story is full of shit. He’s covering.” Calvin shrugged. “Maybe the real Bill decided to split once he capped a Government agent.” “Or maybe this guy is the real Bill, and he killed Taylor.”
They looked at him. “I could really use a cigarette,” Billy said. “Really.” “You know what the Police will do to you?” Jennifer said. “Do you have any idea? They run their own prisons, you know.”
“Whoa, whoa—” There was a knock at the door. She turned. It was Elise Gov-ernment. “Hi, boss,” Jennifer said. “A word?”
“Sure.” She closed the door behind her. “Guess what I just got?” Elise said. “A psych evaluation.” She supposed she’d known it was coming. “Oh, hey, Elise, I was joking around with that shrink. I didn’t think he’d take me so seriously. Between you and me, that guy needs a vacation.”
“You’re taking a vacation,” Elise said. “As of right now. Go home.” “No, wait, no. Elise, I’m making a major breakthrough here. I’ve caught a murderer red-handed; we can roll him over on John—”
“This isn’t a breakthrough. The labs finished checking your suspect’s weapon. It hasn’t been fired.” Jennifer blinked. “Not once?”
“Listen to me. You need a break. This case will be solved without you. You’re not my only competent agent.” She hesitated. “Give me an arrest warrant for John Nike and I’ll go home.”
“No.” “Elise! Today John killed one of the few people who could link him with the Nike Town killings. If we don’t pick him up, Hack is next. John is cleaning up.”
“I can’t give you a warrant on one person’s say-so.” Jennifer said, “I—have more evidence coming in.” “Something substantial?”
“Yes.” She bit her tongue. “Soon?”
“Yes.” “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Jen?” “Elise!” she said.
Elise eyed her. “Here’s the deal: I’ll approve an arrest war-rant on condition that somebody else serves it. You go home, you watch TV, you resist the urge to call in every five minutes. We’ll take care of John Nike. All right?” “Okay,” Jennifer said, thinking she could ride along on John’s arrest without Elise finding out. “Deal.” “And get yourself a decent haircut,” Elise said. “What did they use on you, garden shears?” “Ha-ha,” she said, and went back inside. Calvin had given the NRA guy a cigarette. She sat down and watched him a while.
“What?” Billy said. “You never fired your gun. Not once.” “That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he said. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Jennifer stayed late at the office, formulating a plan. By the time she left, she had a good idea what she was going to do with Billy NRA. She thought he would turn out to be useful after all. It meant she’d have to come back to work tomorrow, but that was okay. Elise’s direction to go home was probably more of a sugges-tion than an order anyway.
When she arrived home, Kate was scribbling on some draw-ing paper on the coffee table. “Heya!” Jennifer said. “Hi, Mom! How was your day?”
“Great! I caught a bad guy.” “Yay!”
“I know,” she said. “It was very satisfying. How about you?” “I had a good day, too.” Kate rummaged in her schoolbag and emerged with a gray folder. “What are you doing with an internal Government report?” Jennifer said. She took it and flipped open the front. It said: PENGUINS! In the corner, Kate’s teacher had written: Excellent work, Kate! You obviously put a lot of time and effort into this one. 10/10. “Kate! This is fantastic!”
“Yeah.” “Wow! Come here!” She knelt and opened her arms and Kate fell into them. Jennifer kissed her. “You are very clever.”
“Next I’m going to do one on Dalmatians. They’re a type of dog.” “I had heard that,” she said. “You’re really into animals, huh?” “I like them, Mommy. When I grow up I want to be a vet.”
“I know you do,” Jennifer said. “I love you. You’ll be the world’s best vet.” Kate hugged her back. “You know,
it’s a pity that. . .” “What?”
“Well,” Jennifer said, “if you’re going to be this famous vet, it’s a shame you have nothing to practice on.” “What do you mean?”
“I’m reconsidering my no-pet policy,” she said. “In light of this excellent penguin project.” “Mom! Are you serious?” “How about a dog? We could rescue one from the shelter.” “Yes! Yes! Can we get a dog? Can we go this weekend?” “Yes,” she said. “This weekend.”
Kate squealed and threw her arms around Jennifer’s neck. “I love you, I love you!” “I love you, too,” Jennifer said. She hugged her tightly.
The man in bed 18C was buzzing her again, and Georgia had run out of patience. She ignored the sound as best she could and helped a teenage girl vomit into a bucket.
The girl spat and moaned. Georgia stroked her hair. “Shhhh.” “I don’t know if I can—” She doubled over again, launched a stream of yellow bile into the bucket. “I want out!” “No you don’t,” Georgia said. “There’s a waiting list for your bed.”
“I hate this. . .” “I’ll get you another blanket.” Georgia drew the curtain around the girl’s bed—it didn’t provide much privacy, but it was much better than last year, when they hadn’t even had curtains— and headed into room 18. “So you’re awake.” “Where the fuck am I?” the man said. “The Church of Latter Day Saints Charity Hospital, King’s Cross.”
“It’s a Sydney hospital. Do you know what year it is?” “Of course I know—” He pawed at the tubes coming out of him. “What’s all this shit?” “You were found unconscious on the streets with gunshot wounds. You had no identification, so we took you in. The sur-geons operated on you two days ago, and—”
“Sir, please calm down.” “I will not calm down! I have insurance, I don’t need your dumb-fuck religious doctors cutting me!” “The administrators will be glad to hear you have insurance,” Georgia said patiently. She’d worked here almost
three years. “We can bill them for the cost of saving your life.” The man tried to pull himself out of bed. “I’m leaving.” His face whitened. “You’re not strong enough to go anywhere. Sit back and I’ll tell the doctors you’re awake.” “No! Wait. If I tell you who I am, will you contact my em-ployer for me?”
“If your insurance is handled through your employer, yes.” “And my details are confidential, right?” “Sure,” she said, not wanting to debate it. The truth was he would be getting a lot of junk mail from the Church from now on.
“All right. All right. My name is Bill NRA. Now tell them to get me out of this hole.”
The hospital walls were light blue, which John liked. The only reason hospitals had white walls was because people associ-ated white with cleanliness: it was marketing, effectively, and there was no point in marketing to a marketer. John would paint a hos-pital for marketers black.
The door to 412 was open. It was a nice room, with a view of the city skyline. He sat in the chair beside the bed and checked if John was awake.
It was hard to tell, with all the bandages. That girl Violet had really let him have it: the doctors still weren’t sure if there was brain damage. Personally, John thought the bigger problem was his face. He hoped a lot of the swelling was temporary. There was no place in marketing for a man who looked like that.
Mercurys had sold as if they were religious artifacts, but for John the whole campaign had taken on a sour taste, thanks to Hack’s inability to be a proper fall guy. Now he and his psychotic girlfriend had vanished, and it was only a matter of time, John was sure, before Jennifer Government came calling. She’d been sniffing around before the campaign; now she’d almost inter-cepted the NRA team sent to eliminate that Police officer. John was in trouble.
He decided to scribble a note for John—Looking good, big guy! Everyone at Nike’s rooting for you—when his cellphone rang. He tugged it out of his jacket pocket and walked over to the window, in case the signals interfered with John’s equipment. John didn’t need any more aggravation. “Go.”
‘John Nike,” a voice said. “What makes you think you can organize a campaign like this from fucking Australia?”
“Who’s this?” “Gregory Nike, VP Global Sales.” John stiffened. He checked the phone display, in case some-one thought he was being funny. The number suggested other-wise. “Sir! I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to speak with you.” “Did you think you were handing out baseball caps? You’d better have a seriously good reason for exposing the company like this.”
From the bed, John groaned and muttered. “Well, I don’t want to preempt my report, sir, but I think the sales results speak for themselves. We’ve sold four hundred thousand pairs in three days, and in dollar terms that’s—” “I’m going to explain something to you now, and you’re go-ing to shut up and listen. All right?”
“Yes, sir.” “I don’t give a flying fuck about your sales. We have strate-gic initiatives in place that make four hundred thousand pairs look like dick. And it pisses me off, John, when those initiatives are jeopardized by a dumb fuck like yourself in Melbourne, Australia, who thinks he can lead worldwide corporate policy.” “It was radical, I admit,” John said. “And perhaps I should have consulted—” “I assume that even the Australian office is aware of the importance of the US Alliance program. Yet you go and involve a Team Advantage company in a—a highly risky campaign.”
He suddenly realized what Gregory was talking about. “The Police—yes, that was beyond my control, sir. It—” He bit his tongue. What was he doing? “I won’t make excuses. I made an er-ror. However, you’ll be pleased to hear I’ve taken steps to address that. The non-US Alliance link is being dealt with.”
“How?” “I probably shouldn’t answer that on an unsecured line.” Heavy breathing, originating in Portland, Oregon. Trans-mitted via satellite to Melbourne, the Australian Territories, re-created by AT&T in John’s left ear. “If you’ve fucked this up for us, John, you’re out of a job. You better realize that.”
“Sir, perhaps we should meet. We can discuss the initiatives I’ve taken and you can brief me more fully on the US Alliance sit-uation. I think I’ve demonstrated my ability to take decisive action and provide outside-the-dots thinking, and you might make better use of my abilities by keeping me inside a higher-level loop.” “Jesus,” Gregory said. “You’ve got some nerve.” John waited.
“Get on a plane. I’ll be in L.A. tomorrow. Meet me there.” “Yes, sir!” Gregory hung up. John stood in front of the win-dow, elated. What a phone call! Talk about decisive action!
He picked up his briefcase and dialed his P.A. On the way out, he glanced at John. He hadn’t written that message yet.
“Sorry, buddy,” he said, straightening his tie. “Strategic ini-tiatives are in place.” He closed the door on his way out.
Buy was a corpse. He sat in his Mitsui cubicle and stunk up the place. Brokers circumscribed wary arcs as they passed, as if what he had was contagious. He was a dead man in a suit.
On Tuesday, Cameron said, “Buy. That’s enough.” Buy looked up. He’d known he was going to be fired for a while now. He’d thought it would be more exciting. “My office.” Buy followed him up to the fishbowl. Cameron waited until they were seated, and even then threw in a pause. Buy waited patiently. “I offered you time off. You remember that.” “Yes.” His voice cracked. He wasn’t using it much these days. “I’m going to suggest it again. This time, I want you to think about it very carefully. It could save you.” Buy felt like laughing. The idea that a week of daytime TV could make him happy again was very funny. “No. Thank you.”
Cameron sighed. “You want me to fire you? Is that it? Your termination package isn’t so hot, you know.” “I know.”
“All right. Here’s your last chance. A transfer.” “What?”
“You’re finished in brokerage. But there’s a lifeline, if you want it. The Mitsui Liaison to US Alliance wants an Australian assistant. That could be you.”
“The Mitsui what?” “Mitsui is part of US Alliance, the customer loyalty pro-gram. We have a person to represent our interests there, he’s called a Liaison. You could be his assistant.”
“Oh,” Buy said. “Okay.” “It’s not such a bad job,” Cameron said. “Could be a real growth area, you never know.” “Thank you.” He wanted to feel more grateful, but he just felt tired. He stuck out his hand. Cameron blinked, then shook it. “You’re in a new office, on level eight. Maintenance will get you everything you need. You should clear out your desk.” “When?” “No time like the present.” “Right,” Buy said. He supposed they wanted to get the smell out.
He went to level eight and was shown his new office. It was small but had a big window with a view of the rest of the city. He wasn’t sure that was good. He had been thinking about the city a lot, lately. About how the city ate people.
Buy caught the elevator back to brokerage and began col-lecting his personal items: a coffee mug, a photo of a
dog he’d owned once, and a few pens. That was it. “Hey, I heard about your big move,” Lisa said. Buy looked up. She was smiling, but her eyes were sharp and vigilant, as if she wasn’t ruling out the possibility that he would lunge at her. “Sounds like your thing, Buy. Congratulations.” “Thanks.” Her eyes softened. “We’re all rooting for you, Buy. Remem-ber that.” “Thank you, Lisa,” he said. He was now pretty sure he was going to kill himself.
The man in the cell was Jesus Christ, or so he kept telling Billy. This hadn’t been very amusing when he’d first arrived, and had become less so over the next three hours. He sat on the bunk in the cell’s corner and pulled his knees up to his chest.
“Righteous fire!” shouted Jesus. “Damnation for—all you cocksuckers!” Billy closed his eyes. He wondered if he could bang Jesus’ head into the cell wall and claim self-defense. Someone rattled keys in the lock. Billy sat up quickly. The door opened. It was the woman from earlier, Jennifer. She was alone.
“Hi,” she said. “Had time to think?” “I am the Lamb of God!” Jesus said. “The Lamb, the Lamb!” “Not you. Billy, you thought about my offer?” “You can’t keep me here.” Billy tried to say it as calmly as he could, but he felt his hands shaking. He really needed another cig-arette. “I’m a US citizen. New Zealand can’t lock me up because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I want to speak to someone from the American Government or the NRA.” Jennifer stared at him.
“What?” “You’re in the Australian Territories, Billy, not New Zealand. Don’t you even know which country you’re in?” “I… they flew me—right, Australia.”
“And I am the American Government. This is a USA coun-try. I leave you here overnight, that’s the best you can do?” “Uh . . .” “I’ll come back later.” “No! Wait! Okay, let’s talk!” “No more talking. I’ve offered you a deal, you say yes or no.” “Fuckers!” Jesus shouted. “The fucking nnnnn-nnnnn—”
“Quiet!” Jennifer said. “All right,” Billy said, feeling hope drain away. “Get me out of here.” She held open the door. He left the cell, feeling like he was sinking deeper and deeper. “I’m glad you made the right choice, Billy,” Jennifer said. “I think we’re going to work well together.”
You’re going to carry this with you at all times,” she said. “Don’t leave it where anyone can see it. Don’t let anyone pick it up.”
“A pack of smokes?” “There’s a bug inside. I can talk back, if you plug head-phones into the little jack down at the bottom. When it vibrates, that’s me telling you I want to talk. Do you smoke Marlboro?”
“Yeah, sure.” “Don’t smoke these.” He stared at them. “Are they drugged?” “No, Billy, they’re cigarettes. But if you finish the pack, there’s no reason for you to hold on to the box. If you leave this thing in a trash can somewhere, I will not be happy.”
“Right,” he said, and licked his lips. He wondered if he could have one of those cigarettes now. Jennifer eyed him. “Maybe you’re not cut out for this.”
“I am, really! It’s just. . .” He reached for the pack. She looked disgusted. “What are you, on one of those high-nic brands?” “I’m cutting back.” He lit one with shaking fingers. The taste was incredible. “Feel better?” “Ohhh . . .” Things were so much better with the smoke. Even Jennifer Government looked cute, in a hard-ass sort of way. “Now let’s get this clear. You get in, you get me some people on tape talking about John Nike and NRA jobs, you get out, and you’re in the clear. But if you ditch this device and run back to Mississippi or wherever the hell you’re from, I’ll come after you. I’m the Government, Billy. You can’t escape me. Understand?” “Yes.” She was silent for a moment. Billy sucked on his cigarette. “He killed fourteen kids. Thought about it, planned it, made it happen. I’m not going to tolerate that. Do you believe me?” “Yes.” She nodded. “You’re booked on a flight to Invercargill, New Zealand, in two hours. Don’t mess up.” “You can count on me.” His whole body was tingling. In this moment, he really meant it.
She moved quickly, but even so they caught her outside her office. “Jennifer!” She looked up. Elise and Calvin were by the watercooler. “Oh, hey, Elise.” “Explain to me why you’re in this building.” “I’m just collecting some things to take home—” “Two weeks ago they were stitching your head back to-gether. Now get out of my station.” “You know, I feel really recuperated,” Jennifer said. “And I saw the shrink again and he said I’d made real progress toward process-ing the negative experience and resolving my role within it.”
Elise looked at Calvin. “Has she seen the shrink again?” “Uh,” Calvin said.
“Get out,” Elise said. “I swear, Jennifer, don’t you so much as call in.” “I’m touched by your concern, but—”
“Did it sound like I was giving you an option?” She resisted a sigh. “No.” “Then go home.” “Fine,” she said, and turned. “What do you need to go to your office for?” “I’m getting my jacket*.” she shouted. “Is that all right?” “I’ll drive you home,” Calvin said.
So,” she said in the car, “now we’ve got this arrest war-rant—” “Don’t even ask.” “What?” “You’re not coming along, Jen.” “That’s not what I’m saying,” she said, nettled. “That’s not even what I meant.” “Oh,” Calvin said. “Good.” There was silence. “So how many agents are you going in with?” “Depends who’s available.” “You’ll let me know how it goes?” He stopped at a light and turned to her. “I will keep you in-formed, Jen.”
“Good. Thanks.” “You know, the break could be good for you. Take some time to step back, cool down, get some perspective. Hang out with Kate.” “I have perspective,” she said. “I have shitloads of perspective. That’s why I don’t want to sit at home while John Nike is still out there. I want him in jail. I want to know that when Kate goes to the shops, nobody’s going to shoot her. That’s my perspective.” “Okay, okay,” Calvin said. “I get it.” “If you let him get away, I’ll be really pissed,” “Jen, I am a competent human being.” “I know. I’m sorry.” She rubbed her face. She felt frustrated. “Don’t take Church Street.”
Kate was waiting for the bus at the school gate. “Mommy!” “Hiya,” Jennifer said. “What’s that on your face?”
“A sticker. See, it has a star on it.” “Oh yeah.”
“How come you’re here so early?” “I’m on vacation.”
“Oh, yay!” “I thought maybe we could go to the park and play soccer. Do you want to do that?” “And, after, can we go to the dog shelter?”
“It’s a bit late tonight, honey. Come on, Calvin’s driving us home.” She took Kate’s hand. “Alex’s dog rolls on its back every time you go near it,” Kate said. “It’s weird.” “Our dog will be much cooler,” Jennifer said. “Can we go to the shelter tomorrow?” “Tomorrow or the weekend,” Jennifer promised. The codes to Billy’s bug were in her pocket. “I have a couple of important things I need to do first, honey.”
John Nike was reading a novel called The Space Merchants; it had been reissued and he’d seen a review in Fast Company. They called it “prescient and hilarious,” which John was having a hard time agreeing with. All these old science-fiction books were the same: they thought the future would be dominated by some hard-ass, oppressive Government. Maybe that was plausible back in the 1950s, when the world looked as if it might turn Commie. It sure wasn’t now.
In The Space Merchants, the world was dominated by two ad-vertising companies, which was closer to the truth. But still, there were so many laws the companies had to follow! If these guys had all the money, John wondered, who could stop them doing what-ever they wanted?
“We’re about to commence our descent, sir,” a flight atten-dant told him. John looked at her cleavage. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
Manual relief, John thought, but didn’t say; this was United Airlines, not American. “No.” He started to put his novel into his briefcase, then tucked it into the seat pocket instead. It was turning into a sly, anti-free market statement, and irony irritated him. There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper mean-ing. There was no place in marketing for that, either.
He was in a cab less than ten minutes after touchdown. He’d visited the States a couple of times before the last barriers to free trade had come down and there had been hassles with taxes, with what you had in your suitcase, with changing money—it was ridiculous. And when you made it through, the culture was so dif-ferent you didn’t even know how to order a beer properly. Now things were much better: the only sign you were in Los Angeles in-stead of Sydney was that the air was lousier.
Nike’s L.A. office was a single floor in an anonymous build-ing on Santa Monica Boulevard. Los Angeles was not a big deal for Nike: Nike was born in Portland, Oregon, and had never left home. He wondered why Gregory was meeting him here.
He paid the cabdriver and bounded into the building. The receptionist sent him to the eighth floor, where a woman told him Gregory would be a few minutes. This was a good sign: “a few minutes” meant Gregory still intended to see him. John had been braced for “unexpectedly called away.”
He wished he’d held on to that novel now. It would have been good to be seen reading it: relevant yet left-field, demon-strating initiative and a creative approach to problem solving. He sifted through the magazines on offer. The best available was Sports Illustrated. He sighed.
Twenty minutes later, Gregory appeared from a side door. “John, VP Guerrilla Marketing, Australian Territories?”
John rose. “Gregory, it’s a pleasure to—” “Sorry I’m late.” “You’re not late at all,” John lied. “I just got here.” Gregory looked at him in annoyance. Maybe that had been too much. “Come through.” He followed Gregory past a small, shabby cube farm of what had to be low-level managers—possibly even Merchandising Officers. Maybe Gregory was trying to humiliate him.
“You’ll forgive the surroundings,” Gregory said, holding open the door to his office. “I’m only in town to meet with US Al-liance.”
John sat. No coffee was on offer, apparently. “US Alliance is based in L.A.?” “Yes.” Gregory planted himself behind the desk and leaned forward. It was a cheap desk, but Gregory made up for it, John de-cided: he was ominous even with bad props. “This is a critical time for us. Which is why your antics aren’t appreciated.”
John wondered if now was a good time to produce his sales report. “I apologize again, sir. I’m looking forward to being brought up to speed on Nike’s vision.”
Gregory folded his hands. “What I’m about to tell you is strictly confidential. It’s covered under trade secrets in your employment contract.” “I understand.” “You better. We don’t screw around with breaches of trade secrets.” John had ruined a few ex-employees in his time. “I under-stand, sir.” “All right. You’re aware of Nike’s participation in the US Alliance customer loyalty program. What do you think of it?”
John considered. He thought loyalty programs were useless, especially to an image-centric consumer goods company like Nike. But obviously that wasn’t the answer Gregory was looking for. “I believe they can be very valuable, in the correct application.” “Loyalty programs aren’t worth dick to us,” Gregory said. John cursed silently. Tricked! “You think anybody buys Nike be-cause they get frequent flier miles? Give me a break.”
John rowed hard. “Sir, I feel the same way. Our brand is weakened by discounting and giveaway promotions. If anything, the higher our price, the more we sell.” “And yet Nike considers the US Alliance loyalty program to be the most important strategic initiative it has taken in twenty years. Why?”
John kept his mouth shut. “You know how US Alliance got started, John?” “Some kind of… airline miles?”
“That’s it. You bought a tank of gas on American Express, you got flier miles for American Airlines. If you didn’t have an AmEx, well, you thought about getting yourself one pretty quick. And right there, the competitive environment changed forever. Because suddenly credit card companies were in competition with airlines.”
“Right.” “So Visa goes out and gets itself a frequent flier miles deal. They think, ‘Hey, what can we do to make our program more at-tractive?’ And they realize—”
“More ways to earn points. More services. More companies.” “And ten years later we have US Alliance and Team Advan-tage, and there aren’t more than five major companies in the world that haven’t signed up with one of them. The more com-panies joined in, the more customers signed up, and so the more companies want in. At the end of last month, US Alliance had five
hundred million subscribers. T.A. has two-ninety million.” “Five hundred million … I didn’t realize.” “Believe it. US Alliance only accepts one company from each industry, but we’ve got the biggest and best. General Motors, IBM, AT&T, Boeing —they’re all here.”
John hesitated. “But Boeing only has industrial customers. What does it gain?” “The battle lines have been drawn. Every Alliance company is in competition with every Team Advantage company. Every customer who flies on a T.A. airline will buy a computer from Compaq instead of IBM. Boeing is with us because otherwise United Airlines won’t buy from it.” “And the Police is . . .” “Not with us,” Gregory said. “It’s in Team Advantage.” “Ah,” John said. “You know, I want to stress that that situa-tion is now resolved—” “Good. Because we have bigger concerns. A week ago, the US Alliance member companies, including us, began offering re-wards for customers who throw away their Team Advantage cards. We’re forcing everyone who signed up with both programs to make a choice.”
John sat back. “This is very impressive. I had no idea that initiatives of such . . . scope . . . were in motion.” “It’s a war,” Gregory said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that. We’ve only seen skirmishes so far, but the war has started. And you don’t want to be doing business with the enemy. You understand me?” “Completely.” “I’m glad we had this talk,” Gregory said. “I’m impressed by your quick grasp of the situation.” “Tell me what to do,” John said.
“Exactly,” Gregory said. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
A bunch of college students got it into their heads to protest at a downtown Starbucks, so Calvin got no backup for Nike. Star-bucks was a big Government client: when they had trouble, agents scrambled. “You can wait, if you want,” Elise said. “We’ll free up Johan and Emma by three—” “Don’t worry about it,” he said, knowing Jen would blow an artery if she found out. He drove to Nike and parked in a visitor’s bay. The front doors parted, enveloping him in air-conditioning. The receptionist was attractive and looked like she ran track in her spare time. “Welcome to Nike. How may I help you?” “I have an appointment with John, Vice-President, Guerrilla Marketing.” “Your name, sir?” “Calvin McDonald’s.” He smiled. Trespass was an assault against property and therefore a crime, but fraud was
fine: fraud was practically a constitutional right, like free speech. “Just a moment, sir.” She murmured into a microphone. “I’m sorry, John’s P.A. has no record of your appointment. Are you sure you have the right time?”
“I’m very sure. Goddammit, what’s going on here?” “I don’t know, sir, you’ll have to ask her.”
“I think I will.” He grabbed the visitors’ book. “I sign in here? What floor is she on?” “Ah—the fourteenth.” “What’s her name?” “Georgia.”
He took an ID tag from the box. The elevator boomed pop music at him. Calvin hummed along with it. On the fourteenth floor, he pushed through glass doors to enter a large, tasteful re-ception lined with wall-sized pictures of sportspeople Calvin rec-ognized from soda commercials. A woman in her late twenties rose. “Calvin McDonald’s?”
“Where the hell is John Nike? I’ve got an appointment.” “Vice-President John is on an overseas business trip. He has no appointments.” “Overseas!” Calvin said. Jennifer was not going to be happy. “Where?” “Sir, I don’t believe you ever made an appointment for John to see you.” “Maybe I’m getting confused. Is there another John in Guerilla Marketing?” “There is Operative John, but he’s in a hospital. If you had an appointment with him, we would have called you.” “A hospital! I hope he’s all right. What happened?” “Sir, I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.” Fraud, Calvin thought, will only get you so far. He flipped open his Government ID. “Okay, I’m not really from McDonald’s.”
She gasped. Calvin blinked. The plastic didn’t usually have such an effect. “You’re not meant to come here! You’re not meant to—put that away!”
“Oh, crap,” he said, realizing. “You’re Jen’s source.” “I—” She froze as someone passed in the corridor. She hissed, “This is not the deal!” He made the ID disappear. “I’m Jennifer Government’s partner. Where’s John Nike?” “Los Angeles. He left this morning.”
“Where’s he staying?” She lowered her voice even further, so he could hardly hear her. “I can’t talk here. Call me later, from a pay phone.”
“Okay. I will.” Calvin turned to leave, then stopped. “By the way, where do you know Jennifer from?” “I worked for her at Maher. Please, you have to go.” “Maher?”
Georgia stared at him. “The advertising firm. She’s Jennifer Maher. Didn’t you know that?” “Jennifer Maher . . .” It sounded vaguely familiar.
“She was one of the best at the biggest ad company in the world. She ran campaigns for Coke, Apple, Mattel. . . she could sell anything. Why do you think she got the tattoo?”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve wondered about that.” “If you’d been part of corporate America ten years ago, you’d already know. People still talk about her.” “So what happened? Why’d she quit?”
“John Nike happened,” Georgia said. “Look, you have to go. If anyone knows you’re here—” “What do you mean, John happened?”
“Please. You have to leave. Please.” “Okay. Thanks for your help, Georgia Nike.” “Saints-Nike,” she said. “I work part-time for the Church of Latter Day Saints.” “What do you do?” “Whatever’s needed.” “And they pay you?” “No. But it’s still Saints-Nike.” “Okay,” Calvin said. “Then thank you, Georgia Saints-Nike.”
Hack was sure of it: Violet was dead. She hadn’t come home after her business meeting, and there was only one plausible explanation: some NRA heavies had found her and taken her out. Maybe John Nike had tracked her down himself. Either way, Hack had made one big mistake too many, and it had killed Violet.
He still had the ring. How poignant! His eyes watered every time he thought of it. He had tucked it in his bedroom drawer, but now he got it out and turned it over in his hands. That was how Claire found him: sitting on the bed, a blubbering mess. She hesitated in the doorway, wearing her Sears uniform. “You okay?” Hack held out the ring. “She’s gone.” “Violet?” “I killed her!” That made fifteen, Hack realized. He had mur-dered fifteen people. He was a serial killer. “Did you hear something?”
He shook his head. Claire sat beside him on the bed. “Hack. . . until we know for sure, you should try not to worry so much. Violet is… Violet doesn’t always think of other people. She might just be busy.” “No, no!” He didn’t want to hear of Violet’s faults. Violet had been kind and thoughtful. “Hey, come on . . .” Claire put her arms around him. She hugged him tightly. For a second Hack was lost in the scent of her hair—but that, no doubt, was because Claire reminded him of her. “I’m sure she’ll be okay. You’re a sweet guy, Hack. You care too much.”
He accepted this silently. His nose touched her nametag. It said: CLAIRE SEARS. She began stroking his hair. Hack closed his eyes. He might have drifted off, because then she was saying, “I have to go,” and he realized time had passed. He sat up. “I’m sorry,” Claire said. “If I’m thirty minutes late for work, I drop a pay grade.” “That’s okay.”
“I’d stay if I could.” She took her arm back. “I know.” “Stay cool,” she said, and poked his nose. He watched her leave. Claire was so good to him. He didn’t know why she didn’t have a boyfriend. Any guy in their right mind would grab on to Claire and not let go, Hack thought.
He looked down. He was still holding the ring. He felt himself tearing up again. “Oh, Violet,” he said to the empty room, and no one answered.
He spent an hour and a half wallowing around the house. Then he got hungry and made himself breakfast. As he ate, he wondered what people at Nike would be saying about him not showing up for work again. There were a bunch of posters that were meant to go to a store in Sydney, and Hack wondered if anyone had taken care of them.
Then it struck him that if he did go in to Nike, he would be safe. His employment contract required Nike to provide a safe workplace, and surely John wouldn’t risk messing with that. Which meant Hack could confront John with total impunity. He could demand justice. Hack bit his lip. That was a daring idea. He began to get dressed.
By the time the cab dropped him at Nike, his legs were shaking. His throat was parched. He decided to go to his desk first and get a drink of water. Then he could confront John.
His boss, the Manager of Local Merchandising, caught him at the watercooler. It had been refilled since the day it had sent Hack off to the marketing floor: it had been refilled by the time he’d come back. “Hack! You take a sick day yesterday?”
“Um .. . yes.” “Hack, you have to phone those in. You can’t just not show up for work. To qualify for sick pay, you need to phone in.” “Right. Sorry.” “I can’t approve pay for that day. I’m sorry, but it’s in your contract. Maybe next time you’ll remember.” Hack sat down at his desk. There was a stack of messages there, but he ignored them. He sipped at his water, then dialed re-ception and asked for John’s P. A.
“Georgia Saints-Nike, good morning?” He took a breath. “I need to speak to John. It’s Hack from Merchandising.” There was a pause. “Oh, Hack . . . I’m sorry, John is over-seas.”
“Oh.” That was a surprise. “When’s he coming back?” “I don’t know. Not for a while.” “Oh. Thanks.” Hack hung up and stared at his desk. So much for a con-frontation. So much for publicly denouncing John. He felt re-lieved, and was ashamed of himself.
“Hey, Hack,” his boss said, stopping at his desk. “You know something about posters for a Nike Town in Sydney? They’ve been calling and calling.” “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” “Good man,” his boss said.
There were a bunch of cars parked outside Claire’s house, and Hack felt a stab of fear. Maybe John had people watching him. Maybe the NRA had tracked him here! But even in the streetlights he could see the cars were tiny and rusting and had bumper stickers that said things like THE WORLD IS NOT FOR SALE. Hack didn’t think the NRA would get around like that.
He entered the house. Claire was in the hallway, carrying a bunch of coffee cups. There were voices coming from the living room: loud and strident. Claire said, “Oh, Hack! How are you?” “Fine. Did Violet—” “She hasn’t called.” “Oh.” Someone in the living room said, “That kind of men-tality is what allowed the corporate sector to dominate society in the first place!”
Claire hesitated. “I have some people over. You might want to stay out of the living room.” “What people?” ‘Just a group . . . we talk about capitalizm and society and things.” “Oh,” Hack said. He thought he would keep out of the liv-ing room. “I mean, you’re welcome to join us, if you want.”
He almost agreed. He didn’t want to say no to Claire. But he said, “No, that’s okay. Thanks.” “No problem. Come in later, if you want.” He went into the kitchen and got some juice from the fridge. The door to the living room was ajar, and the conversation from Claire’s friends spilled through.
“That’s what they rely on,” a girl said. “They know no one wants to get involved. But until you stand up to them, they’ll push you as far as they can. Nike’s a prime example.”
Hack started. For a second he thought they were talking about him. Then he realized they weren’t. Then he realized they were.
He stood up and walked to the doorway with his juice. There were five of them. “Hi,” he said. “Sorry, do you . . . mind if I join you?” “Here,” Claire said. She patted the sofa beside her. Hack thought her smile was very beautiful.
Billy nearly lost the bug even before he made it to the plane. Those Marlboros weren’t as satisfying as his regular brand, and he smoked one after another until they were all gone. He carefully stowed the empty pack in his jacket pocket, then, when the cab dropped him at the airport, fished it out and tossed it on the ground. He was inside the terminal before he realized what he’d done and sprinted back outside. It was lying on the concrete. He snatched it up and put it back in his pocket, where his restless fin-gers tried to crush it when he wasn’t concentrating.
There was a ticket for Billy NRA at the counter, just like Jen-nifer had promised. He looked at the Departures board. Beneath his flight to Invercargill was one bound for Dallas, Texas.
“Everything all right with your ticket, sir?” Billy hesitated. “How much to change my ticket to Dallas?” The girl behind the counter tapped at her keyboard. “I can get you on that flight for an additional three hundred and twelve dollars, sir.” “Oh,” he said, deflated. “Never mind.” He dragged his bag to the waiting lounge and stared at the TV It was maybe ten minutes later when it occurred to him that Jennifer Government would have heard every word he said.
He wandered through Invercargill Airport until he found a bus station that advertised services to Bluff, the small town the NRA was more or less running these days. There was only one other person there, an unshaven, rough-looking man guarding a canvas bag. Billy leaned against the wall and lit up a Camel from a pack he’d purchased on the plane.
“Dude,” the man said. Billy turned, on guard. “Got a spare?”
“Sure.” He dug out a cigarette and lit it for him. “Thanks, man.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Bill NRA.” Billy blinked. “You’re kidding me.”
“What?” “I’m Billy NRA!” He laughed. “Hey, brother! Geez, it’s good to meet another grunt. You stationed in Bluff?” “Yeah, I am!” ‘Just got back from Sydney myself.” He leaned closer. “You been on business or pleasure?” “Business,” Billy said.
The man grinned. “I know about that. I know about that all right.” “You seen some action?”
“Man, look at this.” He pulled up his shirt. There was a red, ugly scar line across his side; it looked pretty recent. “That’s ac-tion.” “Whoa, yeah.” He thought: That might have happened to me. If one of those Police cars had lined him up … “You didn’t do the Police job, did you? I don’t think I saw—”
Bill shook his head. “No, dude. Something else.” He winked. “Cool.” He wondered if Jennifer Government was getting all this. It sounded like the kind of thing she would be interested in.
“Hey, you wanna share a cab to base? We can report in to-gether.” “Yeah, great idea!” “Maybe we’ll end up working together. That’d be shit-hot, eh?” “That’d be unreal,” Billy said. “Shit, it’s so funny, us having the same name.” “Oh yeah,” Bill said. “They’re gonna go nuts trying to tell us apart.”
Billy laughed. The Marlboro packet was in his shirt pocket, and he felt it abruptly begin to vibrate. He slid it to one side. Jennifer probably wanted to bawl him out for thinking about skipping out to L.A.; well, she could fucking wait. “That’s so true,” he said to Bill. “Man, that’s so funny.”
From his new office window, Buy Mitsui could see a gun store. It was NRA-affiliated, which was appropriate, or ironic, or something. Buy had decided that at the end of the day, he would visit this gun store, purchase a firearm, and shoot himself.
People were going to say he’d cracked, that he’d been grief-stricken. But that wasn’t it. The truth was simpler: nothing Buy could ever do would be as important as saving that girl Hayley’s life. He couldn’t watch a girl bleed to death and then go make 3 percent off stock trades. The idea was monstrous. So Buy was fin-ished as a productive member of society, unless he managed to lose so much perspective that margin calls began to seem impor-tant again. Either way, Buy was prepared to put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.
He was debating which was the biggest waste, buying lunch or saving the money, when his phone rang. He was so surprised he picked it up. “Uh—hello?” “Konitchiwa-hello,” the phone said. “Stand by please for Kato Mitsui, Liaison.” “For who?” Buy said.
“Buy, hello!” a new voice said. “How are you? I hear the weather is lovely.” “Who is this?”
“It is Kato Mitsui, Liaison. You are working for me, is that right?” “Oh, right,” Buy said. “Yes.”
“Excellent! It is most good to speak with you. I hope you are excited about this new position, Buy. Are you excited?”
“Uh,” he said. “Well—” “Good!” Kato laughed heartily. Buy had to hold the phone away from his ear. “We have much to do. Our consumer-marketer friends are launching programs of most excellent potential. If we do not wish Mitsui to be relegated to any sidelines, we too must devise some cunning marketing strategies. I am hoping you are well equipped in this department.”
“Marketing strategies? I don’t know anything about—” “Ah, you are modest,” Kato said. “To begin, I shall tell you of a program belonging to our friends at IBM. They are rewarding customers who bring in a competitive product and submit it to their in-house crushing machine. It smashes it in-store, you see?”
“Yes, I see—” “A most brilliant strategy, to relegate the competition to the status of junk and garbage. You must understand, it is difficult for we Japanese to think along these lines of head-to-head competi-tion. This is why we are now finding ourselves running behind our energetic American friends. But the times they are a-changing, are they not?”
“They are,” Buy said. “Very good! Now, you try one.” “What?”
“I am needing all your esteemed ideas, Buy, to improve and establish our role in US Alliance.” “Uh . . .” he said. “Can I think about it and get back to you?” “Of course! I am trusting on your support, Buy. We will talk again when you have had some thoughts.” “I’m on it,” Buy said. He put down the phone. Then he stared at it. I’m on it. That was the sort of thing Buy used to say. I’m on it, I’m all over it, let me find out what the story is and get back to you. Why had he said that? Because what Kato was talking about was interesting?
I’m on it, he thought. It was happening already. He felt dis-gusted with himself. It was almost two. Close enough. Buy packed his briefcase and closed his office door behind him.
There were so many guns, and Buy couldn’t be bothered, looking through the racks. “I want a pistol,” he told the man be-hind the desk. “Something suitable for putting in my mouth and pulling the trigger.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “You want to cap someone?” “Myself.”
“Right, right,” the man said, smiling. It took Buy a moment to catch the insinuation. “Something powerful but disposable. Right?” “In the sense I only need it once, yes.” He unlocked a cabinet between them and hoisted a pistol. “This is a Vektor Z88, nine millimeter. Powerful at close range, simple to operate, doesn’t make a lot of noise, and on the cheap side. This what you’re after?” “I don’t care about the cost.”
The man made the Vektor disappear. “Then you should take a look at this baby right here.” He slapped a gun on the desk. It was sleeker and looked more powerful than the Vektor. Buy picked it up and weighed it in his hand. “A Colt .45, fully automatic. Ex-tremely reliable, American-made, can make a man’s head disap-pear from two hundred feet.”
“I don’t need—” “I know, you don’t need long-range. But if you want power and reliability, this baby has it in spades. The accuracy is a bonus.” “How much?” “For you, three thousand,” the man said. “And I’ll throw in a case of bullets and some cleaning solution.” Buy handed over his AmEx. “Keep the solution.”
The man wrapped the Colt in white paper, then put it in a box. “And, in case you were wondering, this model has no serial number.” He winked.
“Just give me the gun,” Buy said.
He parked his Saab in the apartment block’s underground area and got out. Without thinking, he locked it; it only occurred to him in the elevator how pointless that was. He should have left it on the street with the motor running. The apartment was neat and quiet: his cleaning service had been in. Buy dragged a huge leather armchair over to the floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out at the city lights. They stared back at him. He began unwrapping his gun.
He was struck with the thought that the assassin—whoever had killed the girl, Hayley—must have done this, must have ac-quired a gun and loaded it with bullets. It didn’t seem right to Buy that it was so easy. He looked at the Colt, feeling disgusted. Then he put the barrel in his mouth.
There was a plane descending from the north, its red and white lights winking at him. Buy watched it until it disappeared behind the AT&T building, then pulled the trigger.
Jennifer’s finger was getting sore from holding down V, the key that told Billy NRA’s bug to vibrate. The signal went from her keyboard to her modem, through the telephone line to the Gov-ernment Communications Center in Sydney, to a geosyncronous satellite, to the fake cigarette packet in Billy’s pocket. It was a lot of technology the Government was still paying off, and it was all useless thanks to the astounding stupidity of Billy NRA. She had a plan: Billy would overpower Bill and get him to a Government station. This was clearly the man the NRA had con-fused Billy for. Why he was only now returning to New Zealand, Jennifer didn’t know, but that was just details. The important thing was that she’d been given this opportunity to arrest him and re-place him with Billy, who could then gather evidence to link the whole mess back to John Nike. But Billy wasn’t picking up, Billy, was en route to the NRA in blissful, moronic ignorance, and if he reported in alongside the man he was pretending to be, it was all over for Jennifer’s clever plan and probably all over for Billy, too. “Mommy?” Kate said, coming into the study. “Can we go to the dog shelter now?”
“In a little while.” She picked up the phone, but it hissed and squealed at her. She’d forgotten about the modem. “Can you get my cellphone from the kitchen table, honey?”
“I thought we were going to go.” “Kate, Mommy’s very busy.” “Then when can we—” “After,” she said. “When I’m done, all right? Please get my phone. It’s very important.” Kate left. Jennifer waited, holding down the V key. Her head hurt.
“Is this it?” “Thank you. I won’t be much longer, sweetie, maybe twenty minutes, okay?” “That’s what you said an hour ago.” “It was not an hour,” she said, but she looked at her watch and maybe it was. “Kate, please go and—find something to do.”
Kate left wordlessly. Jennifer swapped hands on the key-board—she was about ready to dump this sling—and dialed with her free hand.
“Government Comms Center.” “It’s Jennifer, Field Agent. I’m using that Marlboro bug and I need to get a message to the user.” “You know that vibrate feature I told you about? If you go into the Transmit screen and press V—” “I’m pressing the V right now. How else can I get a message to him?”
“Um . .. you could just try transmitting a message anyway.” “He’ll hear that?”
“No, not unless he’s got the headphones in.” “Why would he have the headphones in?” “I dunno, I’m just saying—” “Fuck!” she said. “It’s designed to be unobtrusive,” he said, wounded. “An un-dercover agent doesn’t want his bug to start broadcasting, ‘Come back, Agent Grimes.’ Maybe your operative has a good reason for not responding.” “My operative’s reason for not responding is that he’s an id-iot. You’re telling me there’s no way—” Her cellphone beeped. She looked at it. It said: INCOMING CALL.
“Apart from vibrate? No, there’s not.” “I’m going to put you on hold, and I want you to think of a way for me to contact my operative. All right?” “I’m sorry, there’s no—”
She switched lines. “Hello?” ‘Jen!” Calvin said. “How’s home life? I didn’t interrupt you in the middle of baking cookies, did I?” “No,” she said. “Did you get John Nike?” “Ah … no, not exactly.”
“Before you get upset—” “I’m upset!”
“He jumped a plane for Los Angeles.” “Son of a bitch!”
“I’ve already contacted the L.A. office. They’re going to assign a couple of agents. They’ll take care of it.” “No. They won’t. John isn’t going to be caught by a couple of agents looking for him in their spare time. Jesus!” “Well, I guess you’ll just have to trust in their abilities,” Calvin said. “By the way, the other John is in a coma.” “What?”
“There are two Johns, right? Vice-President John is in L.A. The other one is in a coma. They don’t know if he’ll ever recover.” •
“Oh,” she said. “Right.” That was kind of good news. “Aren’t you going to ask me how I know this?” “How do—”
“It’s a funny story,” Calvin said. “At Nike, I ran into this Georgia Saints-Nike. Nice woman. She told me all about working with you and John in your halcyon advertising days at Maher. At first I had trouble picturing you in a power skirt and heels, but now I think about it—”
“I have someone on hold,” she said. “Does this story have a point?” “You lied to me. You said you never worked with him.”
“I said I never worked for Nike.” “That’s sneaky, Jen. Very sneaky. What happened? John stole a juicy account from you? Pinched your ass at the office Christmas party?”
“I really hope you found some time to work on the case in between snooping into my past.” “I’m starting to wonder if there’s any difference.”
“Look,” she said. “I’m Government. He’s a criminal. Does it matter if I used to know him?” In the living room, she heard the TV go on. “Kate!” she called. “Too loud!”
“If you’ve got a prior interest in John Nike, you’re not help-ing the Government by keeping it a secret. He could use that in his defense.”
“Calvin, please.” Her phone beeped, reminding her about the call on hold. “Nobody else knows what John is capable of. I’m the best person to track him down. Because I used to work with him, I can’t be on this case? No. That’s stupid.”
‘Jen-” Her phone beeped again. “Hang on, I’ve got someone on the other line.” She put Calvin on hold, yelled, “Kate, turn the TV down!” and switched calls. “You still there?”
“Hello? Is… is that Jennifer Government?” Jennifer blinked. This wasn’t her guy on hold: it was a new call. “Who is this?” “It’s Buy Mitsui. You interviewed me on Tuesday?”
“Oh. Buy, sure. Look, can I call you back? I’m kind of—” “I have a question.”
“Is it quick?” “I think so. I have a … a Colt pistol, and I can’t get it to fire. There’s. . . some kind of lock, I guess.” “There’s a safety just in front of the trigger,” she said. “Have you loaded the magazine?”
“Yes, I put some bullets in.”
“If the magazine’s not full, you have to chamber the first round. Did you do that?” “Oh,” he said, and laughed. “No. Thank you.”
“No problem.” She was reaching for the button to cut him off when she realized what he was saying. “Wait a minute. What’s this for?”
“Um … I’d rather not say.” “Please. Say.”
“Well,” Buy said. “Okay. I’m going to kill myself.” “Bad day at the stock exchange?” He was silent, and Jennifer regretted the words. “Buy, I’m sorry. Give me one second. Okay?” “Okay.” She clicked her phone. “Any ideas?” “You could try sending the vibrations in Morse code,” the Communications Center guy said. “Does your operative know Morse?”
She laughed before she could stop herself. “Is that a no?”
“Thanks for your help.” She killed the call. “Calvin, I’m coming in tomorrow. See you at the office.” “Jen! No!”
“Buy?” “I’m here.” “Where do you live?” “That’s—really not necessary.” He sounded embarrassed. “Please—” “This is about the girl. Hayley. Right? Tell me where you live.” He told her. Jennifer took her finger off the V key to write down the address. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” “I—okay. Okay.” “Do you have wine?” “Wine? Yes.” “Good,” she said, and hung up. She looked at her computer screen, at the collection of technology that left her unable to speak to Billy NRA. Then she turned it off.
Kate was watching a television show about giant pandas. Jennifer squatted down in front of her. She looked up. “That last baby-sitter, she was nice, wasn’t she?”
“No! You said we’d go to the dog shelter!”
“Kate, I’m really sorry.” She sat down and put her arms around her. Kate was upset and resistant; it was like hugging a cat. “I know I said we could go today. But we can go tomorrow, and that’s still earlier than the
weekend, right?” Kate didn’t respond. “Honey, I’m sorry. But sometimes you have to be brave and put your own needs on hold, to help someone else. Do you understand?”
“I don’t want you to go!” “I know you don’t, sweetie. Look, you’re the most important person in the world to me. I’ve told you it’s important for me to go. But if you really don’t want me to, I’ll stay. Okay? What do you say?” “Stay!”
“Kate!” she said, exasperated. “I have to go!” “I don’t want you to!” “You didn’t mind me going out when you had those new videos to watch! You hardly noticed I was gone!”
“I did notice!”
“All right!” she shouted. “All right, all right! I’m a terrible mother! I’ve ruined your life! I’m sorry, but I have to go!” She ground the heel of her hand into her forehead. When she removed it, Kate was looking at her. “What?” “You’re not a terrible mother, Mommy.”
“You . . .” she said. “Well, that’s nice of you to say.” “Are you sure we can go to the dog shelter tomorrow?” “Yes,” Jennifer said. “Honey, I promise. I’ll pick you up from school and we’ll go straight there. We’ll pick out the perfect dog.” “Okay,” Kate said. “And.. . soon you won’t be so busy, right? When you’ve caught the bad guys.” “That’s—that’s right. I wish I could spend all my time with you. I love you, Kate. Mommy is just under a lot of pressure right now.”
Kate nodded. “She was nice. The last baby-sitter.” “Good girl.” Jennifer kissed her. She felt proud and tired.
The easier your job, the more you got paid. John had suspected this for many years, but here was the proof: pulling down five hundred bucks an hour to sit in the afternoon sun on top of an L.A. office tower. He was wearing a suit and shades, reclining on a deck chair while a light breeze blew in from the bay. John thought he might have found the perfect job.
“Hey,” he said to the foreman. “I’ve got an inventory sheet. None of this stuff had better go missing.” The foreman looked at him. He was not so relaxed: he was getting paid much less than John and doing much harder work. “Nothing’s going to go missing.”
“It better not.” He closed his eyes, enjoying the sun. He was building a nice tan out here. “Nothing’s going missing,” the foreman repeated. He hesi-tated. “I don’t know your business, but—you want
these things pointing north, right?” “So?”
“Well, north is downtown. You’re going to end up with a bunch of missiles pointing at other office towers. If you’re worried about security—” “You’re right,” John said. “You don’t know my business.” After a while, the foreman went away. John folded his hands on his chest and closed his eyes. Tomorrow, he thought, he would bring a couple of beers.
His new title was US Alliance Liaison. He didn’t know exactly what that meant; it was something to do with making sure Nike was doing its part for the team and the team was doing its part for Nike. Last night he’d met Liaisons from General Motors, Microsoft, and Johnson & Johnson. It was amazing to think they were all on the same side. What they could do with all those mar-keting budgets working together!
He and Gregory met in a bar on Sunset every night, or almost every night. When Gregory didn’t show, John downed scotches and picked up women. But mostly Gregory showed. John was into his third drink and eyeing a girl with curly brown hair when Gregory sat down. “John.”
“Hey, buddy.” “You get the installation done?” John drained his glass. “Half of it. We’re putting the rest in tomorrow.” “Get someone else to do it. You’re going to London.” “What’s there?” “Our interests. You’ll get more information when you arrive.” “All right,” John said, but he was annoyed. London would not be eighty degrees with a light breeze; London would not provide opportunities to network with the type of people he wanted to meet.
“You’ll be working with the Shell Liaison. You do what he tells you. Understood?” “We’re taking orders from Shell now?” “It’s called teamwork.” “O-kay,” John said.
“I have to go. Collect your ticket from the office and call me from London.” He studied John. “Also, it may be a good idea for you to keep a low profile. I’m told the Government is looking for you. The little matter of fourteen dead teenagers.” “Hey,” John said. “You know I only ordered ten.” “You can explain that to the Government,” Gregory said, looking at his watch, “if they ever catch up with you.” “It’s not the whole Government,” he said, disgusted. “It’s just Jennifer. The bitch never quits.”
Gregory raised his eyebrows. ‘Jennifer?” “Long story,” John said. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Gregory considered. “Don’t expect the company to help you, John, if the Government gets you for this. It won’t accept responsibility for a criminal act.” “Then maybe the company should hand over the billion dollars my criminal act just made it.” Gregory was silent.
“Uh-huh,” John said. He smiled at the girl with curly hair. “Does it bother you, John? That you’re responsible for those kids?” John looked at him. “How do you mean?”
“Forget it,” Gregory said. “Hey,” John said, nettled. “It’s my job to increase sales. Is it my fault that was the best way to do it? If the Government had the muscle to enforce the law, it wouldn’t have made economic sense, but they don’t, and it did. This is the world we live in. If you don’t take advantage of the rules, you’re a sucker.”
“I see,” Gregory said. He was disappointed, John realized. You could never do enough for some people. No matter how much you delivered, they always wanted more. “For now, deal with your Government problem. And call me from London.” “Sure.” He tried to end on a positive note. “You can count on me.” He watched Gregory’s back until he disappeared onto the street. He had overstepped his mark there. He had mouthed off. The talk about Jennifer Government had thrown him. The idea she was still tailing him gave him the creeps.
“Another?” the bartender said. “Sure,” John said. He looked around the bar. The girl with curly hair was still there, talking with her friend. She looked at him, smiled, and looked away. She was maybe sixteen. John smiled back at her. He could end L.A. on a positive note, too.
Georgia picked up on the first ring. John was pleased: it was eight A.M. in Melbourne, and most P.A.s would be taking advantage of his absence. John liked Georgia Saints-Nike; he’d used her since Maher. The only thing she lacked was a knockout body and a penchant for skimpy outfits, but John had been down that road before and it never worked out. Other managers got jealous, your diary never got organized, and after you’d been fucking them a few months they turned whiny and disobedient.
“Georgia, good girl, in early. I’ve got some work for you.” “Hi, John. How’s LA?”
“Great.” He was calling from the airport gate; he had his finger plugged into his other ear. “I’m going to London
today. Has the Government been around?” “The Government?”
“You know: cheap suits, dour expressions, always asking for money.” “No John.”
“You haven’t heard from Jennifer?” ‘Jennifer Maher? No, John.” “Okay.” Superficially, that was good; fundamentally, it meant Jennifer was chasing him but being sneaky about it, which was bad. “If they come knocking, I’m in Cuba.”
“Cuba?” “Or some country I might actually visit, I don’t know. Make something up.” “All right, John. Can I get a number for you in London? An address?” “I don’t know where I’ll be. Just use my cellphone.” The flight had started to board: attractive women in short skirts were processing business-class tickets. “I have to go. If anything’s not clear, get John to sort it out.” “He’s still in a coma.”
John blinked. “Still? How long is that guy going to take to get back to work?” “The hospital said it’s hard to tell.”
“Jesus,” he said. “Those places have no accountability. Look, I’ll call you from London.” “With an address?”
“Sure, yeah. You clear on my instructions?” “Yes, John.” “Good girl,” he said. “I can always rely on you.” “Business class?” one of the women called. “Business class?” “Right here,” John said, handing her his ticket. He looked into her eyes and smiled. Ten hours later he was wandering around the Heathrow lounge looking for anyone with a JOHN NIKE sign. He did two vague laps, then settled into a plastic bench seat with his briefcase on his lap.
After a long time, a kid wearing baggy pants and a puffy jacket wandered into the lounge. “You John?” “Yes.” “Sorry I’m late, man. The airport is, like, two hours out of this city.” “Really?” John said. “Well, how about you turn around and go back there.” “Say what?” said the kid.
“You see those things on your feet? That’s my company. There are some people you can leave waiting for thirty minutes, and I’m not one of them. I don’t get met by trainees, especially when they’re an hour late. So go back to London and tell your boss that when a real person wants to talk to me, I’ll be at the Hilton.” He stood.
“Dude,” the kid said, “no need for hostilities. I’m a Liaison, too.” John started. “You’re the Shell Liaison?” “PepsiCo. We’ll be working together with Shell.” “Pepsi.” “So are we cool?” “You’re the Pepsi Liaison.” “Straight up.” John sighed. Consumer marketing could be so tiresome. “So can we move?” the kid said. “My Ferrari’s double-parked.”
I’ve never been to England before,” the Pepsi kid said. He had mentioned his name, but John hadn’t bothered to remember it. “I gotta say, I’m disappointed. I thought it would be all cottages and meadows and shit. But it’s just another city.”
“Mmm,” John said. He looked out the window as they roared past a Mini. “I mean, I’m glad it’s not all, you know, European Union and police. But I thought there’d be some differences.” “Where’d you get the car?” “I just asked my P.A. to get me something hot.” He glanced at John. “It’s a 550 Barchetta. You like?” “It’s all right.” He decided to get Georgia to rent him a Porsche.
“You wanna drive?” “No.”
“Twelve cylinders, dude, it’s like wrestling a crocodile.” “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. But trust me, I’m competent.” The kid swerved through lanes. “Hey, I saw this old British movie, all the people spoke so different, you could hardly understand them. But everyone here speaks American as good as you and me. What’s with that?”
“It’s a smaller world these days,” John said. “Where are we going?” “Oh, sorry, man. We’re going straight to the stock exchange. Didn’t they tell you? Shell’s buying out ExxonMobil. They launch a hostile takeover bid in . . .” He looked at his watch. “Thirty minutes.” “That’s why we’re here? To watch a bunch of bankers?”
“Brokers, dude. It’s a serious event. If this one comes off, US Alliance controls two-thirds of the world’s heavy fuels.” “And what are we meant to do?” “Crowd control.” The kid grinned.
John said, “I’d really like to speak to the Shell Liaison.” “We’re meeting him there.” John said nothing. This was very screwed up. He wondered if he should call Gregory. “And what’s with these road signs?” the kid said. ” ‘Motor-way?’ What’s wrong with ‘interstate?’ ” “They don’t have states. They call them shires.” “Why?” “They just do.” “Huh,” the kid said. He was silent for a while. “Well, I guess that’s different.”
Buy was halfway into a new shirt when the buzzer went. He buttoned and hurried into the kitchen. He could see Jennifer in the fuzzy screen of his intercom, wearing a long coat.
He suddenly decided not to answer. He shouldn’t have called her in the first place: that had been pathetic. He might as well have said, “Hi, Jennifer, this is Buy with a cry for help.” He felt embarrassed at his failure to competently kill himself.
The buzzer rang again. On the intercom screen, Jennifer shifted impatiently. He pushed the button. “Hi.” “Oh, good. You’re still here.” “Uh,” he said. “Yes. Come on up.” He buzzed her in. His apartment looked plain and embar-rassingly bachelorlike. Buy wished he had some flowers, or knick-knacks, or something.
She knocked. Buy took a breath and answered the door. “Hiya,” she said.
“Hi! Come in, let me take your coat.” “Thanks.” Jennifer wandered in and looked around, almost professionally. “Nice view. How much does a place like this cost?” “You don’t want to know. Would you like a drink?” He had wine chilling in the fridge and two glasses on the sideboard.
“Yeah, that’d be great.” She dropped onto the sofa. “I’ll be right back.” He went into the kitchen, collected the wine and glasses, tried to calm down, and went back in. Jennifer was flipping through a magazine he’d left on the coffee table: In-vestor.
“Does this stuff really interest you?” she said. “All these numbers and graphs?” Buy sat down in the chair next to the sofa. It was hard to not look at her barcode tattoo. He kept wondering what would come up if you scanned it. “Not anymore.”
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