It’s Friday night and Prad feels like doing something while he’s out of the house. He couldn’t rope Angie into coming with them, but Sa’id and Achebe took him up on the offer. They needed a chance to discuss strategy before returning to their daily lives. Already Sa’id has a few people in mind that he would like to see associated with Dangle. He plans to email the list to Angie as soon as he gets home. He even thinks a few photo shop pics for the file would be nice. It seems a little overkill, but who the hell cares? All they need to do is create the illusion of something illicit, nothing that’ll survive investigation. All that’s really necessary is for the press to pick up on the scent of a possible scandal, a little something to make the Congressman’s life more interesting before the next election.
They discuss the anonymizer Angie’s planning on implementing. For a man like Dangle, who approved email surveillance for government employees, it seems like a fitting irony. The only question is which site she’ll use. Prad knows she’s partial to the Norwegians, though Russia has become good at producing such sites due to all the domestic spying they had to endure under Putin and Medvedev. Then again, there are plenty of Puget Sound services who offer similar services, thanks in no small part to eight years of Tom Ridge and Homeland Security spying on people’s emails. After their first pitcher, they get into specifics of their own work.
“You and me can come up with some Icebreakers for the FBI, no problem, Prad,” Sa’id says over his sudsy glass. “I got plenty of friends who would be more than willing to help. It’s a dream come true, you know. I gotta thank Angie for giving me this chance.”
“Assuming we don’t get of course,” Achebe says.
“It’s just a one time thing right? And even if we fail, they won’t know it was us.”
“They could always find out the old fashioned way.” Achebe looks over his shoulder at the other patrons. “Maybe we should be doing this from home… separately?”
“Naw, we need all our brains to do this. Angie did say our collaboration was key.”
Prad is saying this. He has surprised his fellow members on more than one occasion by demonstrating his willingness to take orders from a girl. It surprises him too sometimes, but none of them seem to think of Angie as a girl. Achebe’s concern seems more directed towards her methods though.
“All of us can do this from home and still stay connected, it’s called a conference call.”
“You trust your phone?” Sa’id scoffs.
“Then how about some MSN or Skype, Mr. Arab fucking nationalist?”
“Yeah, that’s smart. The feds are a hell of a lot likelier to tap your computer than your phone, dude! Public places are way safer.”
“Just wait til they start putting up cameras. This country will create its own version of the London Eye any day now.”
Prad slaps the counter. “This is all fine and good, but it was Angie’s call and we all said we were down, right? If you’ve got problems, Achebe, why did you agree to this?”
Achebe swills a little beer and his mouth and appears to be giving the questions some thought. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t like the idea of sitting things out while the boss lady is busy doing something dangerous.”
“And because you like a challenge.” Prad raises his glass and taps it against Achebe’s. Sa’id joins them from the other side. At the very least, they agree that they can pull this off. No federal tracker is as good as any one of them. How could they possibly fare against three of them combined?
It all sounds too simple. With a little lubricant and enough testosterone, just about anything does. Sa’id and Kingdome turn down Prad’s recommendation for a third pitcher and decide to call it a night. They have families and lives to get back to, which invariably forces Prad to go pick up his where he left off. He hops the el-train back to the Empire State towers and decides some television and a fat puff will be his entertainment for the remainder of the evening. Perhaps he’ll even call up mom and dad for his weekly update.
Need to make some more friends, Prad reminds himself. Life has become incredibly monotonous since moving to Puget Sound. The Society has not filled the void just yet, nor has lusting after Angie taken care of the vacuum that is his love life. As he passes through the revolving doors to his building, he realizes he scarcely needs to speak to his parents at all. He’s already telling himself everything they are going to. At least his mother at any rate, who will be concentrating on his love life. All he needs to do before getting to his apartment is lecture himself on finding a secure job and he’ll have both parents covered. Such is the breakdown of his parents’ advice; his mother covers love and companionship, his father career and finances.
It is the doorman calling to him. Prad is surprised, mainly because the guy finally said it right. He looks over at the old man in the monkey suit with a look that says “what the hell do you want?”
“A package came for you sir. I was going to bring it to your apartment, but seeing as how you’re here…”
“It’s okay, I guess. What is it?”
Prad is escorted over to the front desk and eyes a square box wrapped in brown paper and tied shut with binder twine. His address is written in large black letters in what appears to be permanent marker. There is no return address.
“Who sent it?”
“I do not know, sir. It was left at the desk while I was on my break and no one remembers seeing who dropped it off. It was just here.”
“Don’t suppose you gave it a shake? Checked it to see it was vibrating?”
Prad shakes his head at him and places his ear to the package. It’s not vibrating, or ticking, or emitting a funny scent. Could still be anthrax or some other crazy biological weapon. Or maybe it’s a pipe bomb, courtesy of the local Minutemen who think he’s a terrorist. Prad has always wondered why the heat Sa’id complains so bitterly about has never been directed at him. He’s dark enough that some dumb hick might get it into their head to call the NSA or FBI on him. For years he’s been waiting for a knock on the door or a kindly meet and greet with some cloaked figure in a dark alley. It’s like waiting for a shoe to drop. But alas, he is beginning to sense that maybe they’ve caught on to the fact that neither of his heritages are particularly suspect. He eyes the package and tries to decide whether he’s going to open it here or upstairs.
“I’ll take it with me. If it’s anything weird, I’ll phone down.”
“Are you expecting it to be something weird?” the old man asks.
“Uh…no. Never mind.”
Prad leaves the front lobby and wonders where the doorman has been for the last decade. Blissfully unaware that paranoia has become a national canon. The package clunks a bit as he hoists it under his arm and boards the elevator. Whatever it is is not secured too well inside, and is clearly a few sizes too small for the box itself. His nerves are on high alert as he expects the contents to blow up or start leaking from the little thump. He pushes the button for the fourteenth floor (thirteen in reality) and the doors close.
The elevator hums to life and rolls upwards. He can hear the motors purring gently and feels his heart beating pleasantly fast. When the elevator stops on the seventh, it skips a beat and he’s made all the more nervous when an older man steps on with him.
“Going up?” the man asks needlessly. Prad nods and tries not to look nervous, and fails. The man eyes him ever so suspiciously and steps in.
Hot date? Prad looks him over and thinks he’s going upstairs to see some nice widow. He’s decked out in a dapper black suit with a white shirt that looks to be faux-silk, possibly real. He has a dapper jacket on too, so he’s probably picking someone up in addition to taking them out. Or maybe he’s just stopping in for a booty call. Do men his age still do that? He smiles as he speculates as to the content of his wallet. Condoms, in addition to his platinum and senior citizen’s discount card?
Prad checks the numbers again. They’ve reached floor ten. That’s when it hits him. The doors are polished brass and highly reflective. The man has been watching him in the reflection the entire time. He could not have failed to notice how Prad was looking him up and down. And what’s this under his arm? A big brown package with no return address? Well now Prad is feeling the sting of paranoid eyes on him. Or maybe he thinks Prad is one of the buildings many nubile queers, the up and coming boys who are moving into the valley and taking over prime real estate from old fag bashers like him. He feels strangely empowered.
The doors open on twelve and the man politely gets out. Prad is let down. Unless he’s making a call to the authorities, Prad’s been imaging the whole thing. Ah whatever, it was fun while it lasted. And guiltily, he realizes he forgot that by even being in the same tight, confining space with the man, he might have been risking his life. If the package is indeed some leaking biotoxin, then he just killed the poor fellow, or possibly made him and his date very sick. At least he won’t be alone in the emergency room tonight.
The elevator passes the phantom thirteenth floor, reaches fourteen and dings. It takes less than a minute for Prad to make it to his apartment, get inside and fetch the pair of industrial scissors that came with his knife set. Taking a deep breath, he cuts through the twine and starts making a seam along the paper. Once he’s cut the box from one end to the other, he gently tears it off and peaks underneath. It’s a shoebox, Merrell’s from REI, which is indicative of something, he thinks. But it’s still just a shoebox, and he hasn’t even risked a peek at the true contents yet. He feels strangely let down and relieved again. No one would ever pack a bomb or a bio-agent into a shoe box. If the Anarchist cookbook doesn’t contain a section on that, well then it damn well should!
The edges of the box are secured with duct tape, which renews his sense of worry for just a second. If he were packing this box with something that wasn’t supposed to get out until opened, he would be using duct tape to seal it. The scissors come into play again. It’s an old habit that he can’t just rip the tape of something or tear into a package. Not being subjected to Christmas while growing up can do that to a person. They just don’t know how to devour a package. Nevertheless, his efforts are rewarded when he finally slits down the length of the last piece of tape. The eight pieces are easily removed and lay in a heap on his table. Eight silver strips in six and twelve inch lengths.
He takes a deep breath and removes the top.
It’s a book… shit.
Not just any book. A copy of Koestler’s “Ghost in the Machine” is staring up at him from inside. There was a note attached to it, a yellow sticky with cryptic instructions scrawled in fine ink.
Read it. Learn!
Already Prad is starting to feel annoyed. There is something inherently unsavoury about being instructed to learn. It takes all the fun out of it. Learning is most enjoyable when it goes against the grain, when it’s something you’re not supposed to be doing because it threatens the establishment. And the ultimate letdown of knowing that no one considers him important enough to kill him makes it worse.
He picks the book up and looks it over, just to make sure its not somehow rigged or booby trapped. He sniffs the pages, musty but harmless. The spine is intact, the cover not lined with some tactile poison. Nothing’s wrong with it at all. It actually looks like it’s in fine shape, like whoever sent it had the good graces to order a good copy through Amazon.com.
Who the hell sent this, he thinks as he opens it and flips through the pages. Probably Angie, he thinks. Something involving dating tips would probably be more appropriate given the tenor of their last conversation, but getting him to learn is something she would not pass up. The subject matter in undeniably Society as well.
The phone rings, causing his heart to jump again. He puts the book down and grabs the wireless from its cradle on the kitchen counter.
There’s no answer, just dead air and the almost imperceptible sense of something breathing in the background. His paranoia is starting to tingle again.
“Hello. Who is this?”
Another long pause. He strains to hear the presence of breathing but can’t be sure.
“Who the fuck is this? Answer me, you sick cunt!”
“Yamal?” an overtly feminine, high-pitched voice says.
Oh double shit! he screams internally. All the way from Bangkok, the one person he can never allow himself to say “shit” to has just heard the worst he’s got.
“Yamal?! What are doing talking like that?!” she demands.
“Sorry, ma,” he says sheepishly. “Thought you were someone else…”
And Friday night becomes the night from hell. What should have been a routine conversation about his inadequacies has become a full-fledged double-barrelled denunciation. He estimates, as his mother tears into him with fire and brimstone, exactly how many angry calls he will be getting from relatives, coupled with the amount of time it will take to live this down. He gives it about a year, six months at best.
When at last the conversation is over, he ear feels hot and swollen. His dignity is similarly flayed, having been subjected to every bashing his mother could manage. Time for a smoke! Locating his vaporizer and his baggie, he loads a nice fat piece into the chamber, grabs his torch and then heads for the balcony. Another nice feature of the Empire Towers, the lovely terraces overlooking the emerald city at night. It’s actually quite pretty tonight, the air cleansed by the wave of ocean air that’s finally sent it all to Tacoma and Olympia.
He settles into one of the chairs that came with the patio set, the one with the glass table that has the natural bumps and imperfections in it. He settles his feet onto the glass, lights the torch and puts it to his vaporizer. He sips the sweet, cloudy nectar that forms in the chamber, knowing that in a moment, he will have forgotten all about the day and its debacles. At least for a little while…
You were warned …