“Where are we?” asked Denis. Martin, overhearing, turned his head over his shoulder, and said, “As your personal assistant, Sir, I advise that we drive at top speed. It’ll be a goddamn miracle if we can get anywhere interesting before you die of boredom.”
Timothy rolled his eyes. He whispered to Denis, “Martin can be a bit abrasive at times, but he’s indispensable. And fiercely loyal. Ex-Marine. Terrific in a fight.” He winked, and raised his voice. “Our current location has no name. We’re near a number of unbounded, non-municipal subdivisions, one of which is called Woody Heights. My father built this.” Denis didn’t know what to believe, and stared out the window.
They drove on, talking in the kind of stream of consciousness that comes with the release of a year’s worth of adrenaline. After an hour or so they were winding through unlined streets until they finally stopped at a small park area. Martin looked back and said, “I believe the coordinates center on that bench on the far side of the lawn there.” Timothy and Denis got out and walked silently across the grass. Their steps were tiny. Both men were overcome by the intense ache of muscles that have been unconsciously on the verge of spasm for an hour.
The arrival of the messenger was less than inconspicuous. She rode a motorcycle onto the grass and stopped next to their bench, took her helmet off, unzipped her jacket and pulled an envelope from the inner chest pocket. She was not tall, slim and blond, with pale blue eyes and vaguely Nordic features. Her confidence was so overwhelming that Denis had trouble looking at her. He tried, but failed to determine whether she was beautiful or odd looking. Maybe she was plain, but with such animation in her face that he couldn’t make out the details. She spoke to Timothy. “This should have everything you need. Transfer the money when you’re ready to meet again… On the inside.” She quickly put on her helmet, got back on the bike and drove away.
“That was odd,” said Timothy, opening the envelope. “Do you know her?” Denis shrugged. He couldn’t be certain, and the ringing in his ears wasn’t diminishing. He was having difficulty focusing his vision, and he felt nauseous. It probably would have been better to go to the car first, but Timothy’s muscles ached and walking hurt his feet. He was genuinely considering having the car driven over the grass to him. “I’m not sure how this helps me.” He gestured with the envelope, looking up toward where the motorcycle had disappeared. Denis nodded, numbly. “Do you get blown up often, Timothy? I’m just asking because this day has been a little… unusual… for me.”
“I’m probably in shock, but please don’t ask me to come out of it. Let’s just say crazy shit happens around me for a lot of reasons that don’t make sense, but it has something to do with my money and my friends. I keep moving. There’s someone we need to see.”
Timothy smiled. “I don’t think there’s an exit from this ride… fucked if I know what this ride is. I can’t see us as the target back there, although whoever put you up to talking to me might have been. Or maybe it was random. There were a lot of people in that bar with personal enemies, but we all had more impersonal enemies. Jesus, competition isn’t getting lighter. My peers are not a happy-go-lucky bunch. Competition is healthy up to a point, but people reach their limits.”
“Please, Timothy: Do you have any idea why that bar exploded on us?”
“Jealousy? Artistic expression? Greed? Terror? Sending a message? Fuck it, pressure does weird things to people. When you run out of quality, the only way to compete is to hurt the other. It gets pathological. Paranoid and psychopathic. It starts in individuals, then in broader society. In the big picture, there are stages, homicidal, fratricidal, genocidal, cannibal. There are times when waves of paranoia pass through societies like thunderstorms. The inquisition, the holocaust, the trail of tears, the great leap forward, the killing fields. We are not there, but there is no place on earth that has not been touched, and we are only a plane ride away from someplace on the brink.” They slowly walked back to the car. “Grasshoppers change physically when they have too many neighbors and not enough food, also psychologically, into paranoid cannibals. They go into constant motion, both chasing and running, eating anything they can reach. People get that too, that hyperactive anxiety and aggression. They lose empathy and sympathy, like psychopaths. It’s not exactly poverty that does it, at least not stable poverty. It’s more like displacement and dispossession. the feeling of becoming poor or losing control that sends ordinary people into a state of mild psychopathy, a place where opportunity becomes motive to take and not help. And that can happen in places you wouldn’t expect it. I don’t know. People blow shit up for all kinds of reasons. Art, science, religion. You have to remember these are one thing, not many things. Infinitely variable, but all expressions of mind. The abstraction to make sense or maybe some kind of magic from the upheaval of reality. You can stay here if you want, but I don’t know how far we are from civilisation, and these people,” he motioned around them, “would call the police before offering you a cup of tea.”
Back in the car they sat for a long moment, not really waiting for anything. Finally, Timothy told the driver to take them to a hotel. “If you can, make the choice as unrelated to where we are and where we’ve been as possible. I’d like to get free from whatever is stuck on today.” They drove in silence until they found a non-descript hotel in a non-descript neighborhood. “Let’s check in separately. Here’s my card, call Martin when you’re checked in and he’ll bring you some new clothes. I’ll see you at breakfast.” Denis stepped out of the car and walked carefully through the revolving door of the lobby. Night was coming, sleep seemed far away. He leaned on the desk at reception and asked for a room.
Denis was sleeping when the aroma of raw sewage tugged him into semi-consciousness. He tried to open his eyes, but he was too groggy. He thought about rubbing his eyes but his arms wouldn’t move. Suddenly he felt a heavy body on top of the sheets next to him. He was awake, eyes open but the sheet was pulled down tight over him and the body was rolling him over to the side of the bed. When he fell to the floor, he was wrapped tightly in the sheet and picked up. He struggled, but felt himself being shoved feet first into what felt like a body stocking in what he could dimly see as a hole cut out of the wall. And then he was falling, compressed and slowed by the stocking, but definitely falling. Thud. A blindingly sharp pain raced from his right hip, up through his back to his shoulder. He wondered which of his bones were broken. The smell of sewage was very strong. As he faded into unconsciousness, he knew was being moved.
When the bag was taken off his head, Denis was sitting in a small room with a bench. The walls were lined with work tools. Clamp wrenches, saws, hammers. A woman was leaning against the bench and watched his eyes wander over the equipment. “What are we doing here?” she mused. The ringing in his ears was deafening again. He couldn’t focus his eyes, and thought he might be going blind.
“Look, I’ll tell you what I know, and if that’s not enough I’ll say whatever you want. I don’t have a horse in this race. I’m not protecting anyone. I don’t know what’s happening. I’ll tell you the Truth, I swear!” Denis’ blood pressure was in no way under control, and his speech was slurred by dryness and swelling in his tongue.
The woman laughed and threw her head back, exposing two rows of perfectly arranged, gleaming white teeth. Denis thought her laughter was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard, and was beginning to wonder if he was dreaming, hallucinating, or losing his mind. Her eyes sparkled, and as she spoke, the familiarity of her voice crept into his fractured consciousness. “Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “These tools aren’t for you. This is just somebody’s workshop. I really don’t know why we’re here. The guys in sourcing get a bit kinky sometimes. Pretty random. No, you’re safe, for now. I’m not going to hurt you, anyway. I don’t work like that. Hurting people makes them confuse what they know with what they imagine you want to hear. No, a great interviewer can get information the subject doesn’t even know. Sorry for scaring you. Sorry about the handcuffs too; they’re part of the regulations. Health and safety. I don’t like using them because it makes it harder to relax, but management is a real stickler about it…” She rubbed her face and looked around again.
“Some organisations work a bit more aggressively, or at least they say they do, but if you look at their intelligence records it’s pretty dismal. They’re just too competitive. The fastest, cheapest way to obtain secret information is to make it up, and torture is a great way to get made-up data. False information is incredibly easy to get, and if it’s secret, it can’t be fact-checked. Nobody who knows it will confirm or deny it, and nobody is supposed to know it anyway.” Denis wasn’t exactly sure what she was talking about, or why, but it had been a very unusual 24 hours for him, so he took his present situation at face value. He was locked in a tool shed, tied to a chair against his will, conversing with a woman who wanted to talk about global politics… So be it. His eyes were slowly beginning to focus again, and as her face came into soft focus, he realized, with a shock, that this was the lady from the bar, the woman from the office building… The woman in red. Or so he thought. She was wearing different clothes, more functional for the field, khaki pants and a camo jacket. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, and she wore stylish European glasses with no make up. Her cadence had changed, as well. She spoke quickly, in a higher register, and enunciated her hard consonants. Gone was the seductive lilt. She seemed to have a mildly different accent, ever so slightly eastern European perhaps? Was this an act? Was this the real woman in red? But her eyes still sparkled with the same piercing gaze. Denis found her even more beautiful, partially due, he thought, to his crippling fear, and this knowledge confused him even further, and made him doubt his conviction. He still couldn’t quite see straight, and he couldn’t help thinking, “Who the hell is this woman?” She continued, “The reason the CIA and KGB look so stupid most of the time, in China, Korea, Vietnam and Iran two or three times, in Vietnam again, in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, in Kuwait before the first invasion and Iraq before the second, in Afghanistan over and over… jesus where have those guys not fucked up?… but the reason they look so stupid, despite being a bunch of genuinely clever choirboys, is that they acted on made-up intelligence. Curveball in Iraq was typical; the network learns quickly that they get the least pain or the most money for saying what their handlers want to hear, which is never anything like the truth. The truth? Ha. Truth takes too much work for these people, but if you read the Times and a few other papers, you’d have better information than the CIA on most issues. They’re just overwhelmed with folders of made-up shit that’s been stamped ‘top-secret’.
“People have an emotional attachment to secrets, so that they hold on to them, collect them, and believe in them to the exclusion of the obvious truth. It’s not irrational either. Proprietary information makes you special, but it’s liable to make your organisation irrational because in an age of near total information, the chances than anybody has a secret that isn’t either false or misleading are very small.” Denis coughed, and he tried to focus on what she was saying.
“To be honest, the CIA has never taken its job very seriously. Important people, people with the kinds of contacts that can guarantee an agent a big salary upon retirement, those people don’t pay for information, they pay for influence, control. The CIA may have been born to measure, but the value of measurement pales in comparison to the value of control, so the agency followed the money.” She had been pacing in front of him, but abruptly stopped and locked eyes with him, and then smiled on the corners of her mouth, as if they were sharing an inside joke. “Do you like pineapples, Denis?” Denis, terrified as he was, wondered for a delusional fraction of a second if they were about to have sex, and then he felt like crying. But he was certain he knew the answer to this question. “Yes, yes, I like pineapples.” She looked at Denis with pity. “Of course you do. Pineapples are fucking delicious. Now, Do you know why you like pineapples, Denis?” Denis wasn’t sure how to answer. “Um, No?” She began pacing again, seemingly forgetting he was even there. “Because Dole didn’t want to know or care to know whether socialism was gaining momentum in central america, but they wanted to know that it would not affect their access to tropical fruit, and they were willing to pay for that, or get congress to pay for it, or promise jobs and fund a guerilla army and foment revolution for anybody who could make it happen. After Iran, the CIA learned that it’s bread is buttered on the side of action, not information, and so it has consistently failed to predict or prepare for… Well, for anything really. Instead they’ve been romping the globe trying to fix situations for powerful Americans. It’s shameful, but real and kind of inevitable. Information is only valuable if it’s privileged, and information doesn’t like being boxed in. Truth is squirrely, and if you really lock it up, it tends to not be true anymore. Ultimately, the CIA can’t gather better information about politics than most news reporters, so rather than trying to gather information, it exploits it’s privilege of unlimited authority to act. And violá, pineapples in every Safeway.” Denis was beginning to doubt her assertion that this room with just a random workshop, and began looking around to attempt to form a plan of escape. The woman, whom he still assumed was formerly in the red dress, took no notice of his furtive, darting eyes, and continued her dissertation.
“I have the privilege of looking for threads of information that are connected to the heart of the action, the bits that only criminals know, and even they don’t usually know they know what they know. Some angles of the truth can’t be seen from the perspective of a law-abiding citizen. I get to talk to people from across the line, and what you get over there is often so strange that I don’t have to worry about keeping it secret. There is no way for a normal person to fit it into their reality. I’m fortunate enough to have an organisation that values truth over secrecy.” She paused, thoughtfully, for nearly a full minute, without looking at him. He pretended not to be panicking.
“You might be wondering why I’m talking so much. I know you don’t know anything; but if you follow the path you’re on, you might see something. People seem to trust you with things they wouldn’t share with their own grandmothers, and that’s put you in a unique situation. I want you to trust me. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to you, but I’m going to give you my card. Give me a call if you get into any serious trouble, or if you find out what Maxwell’s demon really is.”
“How do you know who I am, or who I’m not, or, wait, can I even ask that?” He wasn’t sure what was happening anymore, but was beginning to wonder if he was in the wrong line of work. Perhaps Sales wasn’t for him after all. Denis felt his anxiety amplify upwards a notch.
“No. You can’t, but I understand wanting to know that. You can’t ask who I am either, or for whom I work.”
“So you’re not the woman I met in the bar yesterday?” She looked at him quizzically, as if he suddenly began speaking in tongues. “OK, Never mind that.” He paused. She seemed patient. He took a deep breath, and asked, “Is Maxwell’s Demon… a criminal enterprise? And is it related to who ever blew up the hotel?” She looked pensive, cocked her head to the side, and bit her thumb with a furrowed brow before she spoke. Denis thought it was the most charming thing he’d ever seen.
“I don’t know. Maybe the hotel was a random terrorism with nothing to do with anything. Maybe somebody wanted to disrupt whatever you got stuck with. Maybe industrial sabotage from the competition, but at this point I don’t know who the competition would be. No, you’re drifting into a sea of real money. It isn’t that these people are criminals, it’s that laws only apply to them sporadically, and once people get a taste of feeling rich, being wealthy isn’t enough. There is something boring about being wealthy. Not bad, but dull, like looking at the world after staring at the sun. The feeling of being rich doesn’t last much past the point of conquest. Like heavy drinking, the only way to recapture the feeling of wealth is to find something bigger, better or sexier to own. Plenty of people live with wealth without the need for more, but there is something dull about that as well. Living with the creature comforts of wealth without the exuberance of feeling rich. From there, the anxiety of losing status takes over as the prospect of rejoining the great unwashed becomes more clear and present than the possibility of finding greater wealth. You always need a little more money to feel rich again. Rich people do arbitrarily stupid things with their money and influence to get that visceral feeling of being rich. It’s not an easy fix to get. When you’re surrounded by other people with lots of money, you don’t feel rich. The quest for more and more money, even more than you could possibly enjoy, feeds the addiction to that first taste of feeling dominant, powerful. That feeling fades quickly as the gloss wears off the sports car or extravagant party. Soon you feel ordinary again, and you need even more money to get that feeling back. It isn’t about material logic, it’s about recapturing a feeling, that feeling of invincibility that maybe you had when you were a teenager, that feeling of freedom that you can regain when splashing more cash than you’ve ever spent before. So yes, there’s always a criminal element at the edge of wealth, and there’s something about the rumours about Maxwell’s demon that seems right on the edge.” She paused, considered Denis for a moment, then continued.
“It’s funny, but the world isn’t dominated by rich guys sitting around swimming pools or boardroom tables. Their decisions are interesting and occasionally influential, but they don’t count for much. Even though they have control over throngs of workers and vast swaths of real estate, they know that any seriously crazy moves they make would automatically deploy their golden parachute and relieve them of any further decision making. No, it’s the desperate climbers trying to become rich who make the decisions, collectively and unconsciously, that change the world. They don’t have a cabal or a conspiracy, they don’t even like each other; but it’s their competition, their striving to get one arm over the other guy’s shoulder, one foot ahead, that determines what gets built and where, who gets advantages and who gets locked out. They cut the corners, buy cheap, and sell the shoddy crap that makes the modern world the flat, tasteless wasteland you see before you, and they do it because if they don’t, they personally know a bucketload of assholes who are waiting for the opportunity.”
“Why did you take me out through a sewer?” Denis interjected after losing the thread of the conversation.
“The boys love using the sewers. There’s no security down there. We just didn’t have time for a formal introduction. The next few hours may get pretty heavy and we wanted to give you a lifeline. Some very interesting people trust you for the moment, and maybe we can help you help us by helping you. If the situation gets weirder than you can handle, try to call the number on the card. If that’s impossible, just drop it on the ground and step on it. It’s a strange little thing, but it works. I’m afraid I have to give you a sedative before they reinsert you. Regulations again. Good night, and good luck.”
Denis was delirious when he was set down on his bed, wrapped in a sheet with his arms pinned to his sides. He looked over at the men disappearing into the wall. When they replaced the missing piece, the wall seemed to ooze itself back together in the half light. His vision was spinning, so he looked up at the ceiling and thought about how to unwrap himself from the sheet. It seemed impossible, so he decided to wait for a better time. Then he heard a zipper from across the room. Loud. He forced his head up and saw a large, strange suitcase that he did not recognize or remember being in the room, opening itself. A person unfolded from the case and lay flat for a few seconds, then rolled over, stood up, and looked at Denis. “Who was that?” she asked.
“Who are you?” responded Denis, without anything like the incredulity that would have been appropriate under the circumstances, ordinarily.
“Call me Isabel. What are you doing with Timothy?”
“Seriously? You think I’m just going to talk to you?”
“Don’t make me hit you.”
“Oh. I see. What can I do for you Isabel?”
“That’s better. Who are you and why are you tagging along after Timothy?”
“You can call me Denis. I’ve no idea what I’m doing with Timothy. We were having a chat at the bar and there was an explosion. Did you blow us up?”
“No. Did you sell him on Maxwell’s demon?”
“Maybe. I think it was the explosion that did it. Do you know who blew us up?”
“No. We’re treating that as a random act of terror until we know more.”
“Who told you to tell Timothy about the demon?”
“I can’t remember. Her voice was familiar. I must have tried to sell her something. That’s all I can remember.”
It occurred to Denis that Isabel was the woman on the bike, and he wasn’t sure what he could safely disclose. “Really, I don’t know anything you don’t know.”
“What do you think I know?”
Denis’ brain did a reverse half gainor and sank into darkness for a moment. When it returned, he blurted “who are you people?”
“It wouldn’t do you any good to know. Information is seductive, but beside the point. You can’t eat it, wear it, drink it, shoot it, drive it, or fuck it. What you know doesn’t matter. If you think it does, you have succumbed to one of the grand illusions of human nature. The mind lives on information, or at least it thinks it does. It actually lives on food, shelter and reproduction, but from the mind’s eye, all that is just information, data input to consider before making decisions and commands to the body. Your mind is always seeking a pure stream of information, unsullied by bodily constraints, and IT provides that. Like any junkie looking for a better fix, faster and faster information streams mean less and less reliance on the painfully slow bodily interface. Processed, packaged, thoroughly labeled food eliminates digression and turns sustenance into yet another information stream, which lets the consciousness slip even further into its information bubble. It began with religious ceremony, then books, and now digital IT, but it is still a dead end. The mind doesn’t mean anything without the body. Don’t worry about the information; it doesn’t worry about you. Do you know anything about Timothy?”
Denis mumbled, “Why does everyone keep lecturing me today?”
“What was that?”
“He’s rich, sad, and attractive. Possibly gay.”
“You really don’t know anything at all… Maybe that’s why Timothy trusts you. If you can keep him on board, I’ll make it worth your while. He’s a hard man to pin down, always sailing away. Why is sailing the speed sport for the really rich? I suppose with unlimited funds, going fast in anything motorised is absurdly dangerous, but a million dollars here and there makes a difference for a sailboat, and you can still drive the thing. There is something stupid about trying to go fast for the super rich. It means something to go fast in a cheap car, but if you can afford to buy a Bugatti, or a McLaren, going faster just isn’t interesting. Hopefully, I’ll see you again.”
Before Dennis could respond, she disappeared out the door more suddenly than she arrived, and Denis went back to rolling over in his mind. Eventually, he would be able to do it with his body and unwind himself from the sheet. So he again decided to wait for a more opportune moment. Then he heard the door unlock and open. Timothy walked in and dropped a bag on the bed. He looked down at Denis, whom he expected to find asleep.
“I can’t explain.” Said Denis after a moment.
“No, I suppose not. You roll and I’ll stop you falling off the bed.” When Denis was fully disentangled, Timothy pulled a non-descript shirt and pants from the bag, as well as a fake beard kit. “It seems our pictures are going to be in the news this morning, so let’s leave the general public out of this. Are you drugged?”
“Any idea who did it?”
“Right. Let’s get you dressed, there’s someone we need to see.”