A Time Top 10 Fiction Book of 2013
An NPR Best Book of 2013
A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013
A Goodreads Best Book of 2013
An iTunes Best Science Fiction Book of 2013
An IndieNext Great Reads Pick July 2013
A New York Times Summer Beach Read
An Amazon Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Pick June 2013
A Best of June iBookstore Pick
A Time “What to Read Now” Pick
A Vogue Best Summer Mystery Read
A Huffington Post Best Book of Summer 2013
A Salon Summer’s Best Read
A Hollywood Reporter Buzzy Books for Hollywood’s Reading List Selection
A Pittsburgh Post Gazette Beach Read
A Kirkus Reviews Ten Best Novels for Summer Reading 2013
Every story written is
marks upon a page
The same marks,
Now when Ra, the greatest of the gods, was created, his father had given him a secret name, so awful that no man dared to seek for it, and so pregnant with power that all the other gods desired to know and possess it too.
—F. H. BROOKSBANK, The Story of Ra and Isis
“He’s coming around.”
“Their eyes always do that.”
The world was blurry. There was a pressure in his right eye. He said, Urk.
“It’s too late, forget it. Take it out.”
“It’s not too late. Hold him.” A shape grew in his vision. He smelled alcohol and stale urine. “Wil? Can you hear me?”
He reached for his face, to brush away whatever was pressing there.
“Get his—” Fingers closed around his wrist. “Wil, it’s important that you not touch your face.”
“Why is he conscious?”
“I don’t know.”
“You fucked something up.”
“I didn’t. Give me that.”
A rustling. He said, Hnnn. Hnnnn.
“Stop moving.” He felt breath in his ear, hot and intimate. “There is a needle in your eyeball. Do not move.”
He did not move. Something trilled, something electronic. “Ah, shit, shit.”
“Two of them, it says. We have to go.”
“I’m already in.”
“You can’t do it while he’s conscious. You’ll fry his brain.”
“I probably won’t.”
He said, “Pubbaleeese doo nut kill mee.”
An unsnapping of clasps. “I’m doing it.”
“You can’t do it while he’s conscious, and we’re out of time, and he probably isn’t even the guy.”
“If you’re not helping, move out of the way.”
Wil said, “I . . . need . . . to . . . sneeze.”
“Sneezing would be a bad move at this point, Wil.” Weight descended on his chest. His vision darkened. His eyeball moved slightly. “This may hurt.”
A snick. A low electronic whine. A rail spike drove into his brain. He screamed.
“You’re toasting him.”
“You’re okay, Wil. You’re okay.”
“He’s . . . aw, he’s bleeding from his eye.”
“Wil, I need you to answer a few questions. It’s important that you answer truthfully. Do you understand?”
No no no—
“First question. Would you describe yourself as more of a dog person or cat person?”
“Come on, Wil. Dog or cat?”
“I can’t read this. This is why we don’t do it when they’re conscious.”
“Answer the question. The pain stops when you answer the questions.”
Dog! he screamed. Dog please dog!
“Was that dog?”
“Yeah. He tried to say dog.”
“Good. Very good. One down. What’s your favorite color?”
Something chimed. “Fuck! Oh, fuck me!”
“That can’t be right.”
“It says it right fucking here!”
Blue! he screamed into silence.
“He responded. You see?”
“Yes, I saw! Who cares? We have to leave. We have to leave.”
“Wil, I want you to think of a number between one and a hundred.”
“Any number you like. Go on.”
I don’t know—
“Wolf is coming and you’re dicking around with a live probe on the wrong guy. Think about what you’re doing.”
Four I choose four—
“I saw it.”
“That’s good, Wil. Only two questions left. Do you love your family?”
Yes no what kind of a—
“He’s all over the place.”
I don’t have—I guess yes I mean yes everybody loves—
“Wait, wait. Okay. I see it. Christ, that’s weird.”
“One more question. Why did you do it?”
“Simple question, Wil. Why’d you do it?”
Do what do what what what—
“Borderline. As in, borderline on about eight different segments. I’d be guessing.”
I don’t know what you mean I didn’t do anything I swear I’ve never done anything to anyone except except I once knew a girl—
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
A hand closed over his mouth. The pressure in his eyeball intensified, became a sucking. They were pulling out his eyeball. No: It was the needle, withdrawing. He shrieked, possibly. Then the pain was gone. Hands pulled him upward. He couldn’t see. He wept for his poor abused eyeball. But it was still there. It was there.
Blurry shapes loomed in fog. “What,” Wil said.
“Coarg medicity nighten comense,” said the taller shape. “Hop on one foot.”
Wil squinted, confused.
“Huh,” said the shorter shape. “Maybe it is him.”
• • •
They filled a sink with water and pushed his face into it. He surfaced, gasping. “Don’t soak his clothes,” said the tall man.
He was in a restroom. An airport. He had come off the 3:05 P.M. from Chicago, where the aisle seat had been occupied by a large man in a Hawaiian shirt Wil couldn’t bear to wake. At first, the restroom had appeared closed for cleaning, but the janitor had removed the sign and Wil had jagged toward it gratefully. He had reached the urinal, unzipped, experienced relief.
The door had opened. A tall man in a beige coat had come in. There were half a dozen free urinals, Wil at one end, but the man chose the one beside him. Moments passed and the tall man did not pee. Wil, emptying at high velocity, felt a twinge of compassion. He had been there. The door had opened again. A second man entered and locked the door.
Wil had put himself back in his pants. He had looked at the man beside him, thinking—this was funny, in retrospect—that whatever was happening here, whatever specific danger was implied by a man entering a public restroom and fucking locking it, at least Wil and the tall man were in it together. At least it was two against one. Then he had realized Shy Bladder Guy’s eyes were calm and deep and kind of beautiful, actually, but the key point being calm as in unsurprised, and Shy Bladder Guy had seized his head and propelled him into the wall.
Then the pain, and questions.
“Have to get this blood out of his hair,” said the short man. He attacked Wil’s face with paper towels. “His eye looks terrible.”
“If they get close enough to see his eyes, we have bigger problems.” The tall man was wiping his hands with a small white cloth, giving attention to each finger. He was thin and dark-skinned and Wil was no longer finding his eyes quite so beautiful. He was getting more of a cold, soulless kind of vibe. Like those eyes could watch terrible things and not look away. “So, Wil, you with us? You can walk and talk?”
“Fuck,” he said, “orrffff.” It didn’t come out like he meant. His head felt loose.
“Good,” said the tall man. “So here’s the deal. We need to get out of this airport in minimum time with minimum fuss. I want your cooperation with that. If I fail to receive it, I’m going to make things bad for you. Not because I have anything against you, particularly, but I need you motivated. Do you understand?”
“I’m not . . .” He searched for the word. Rich? Kidnappable? “Anybody. I’m a carpenter. I make decks. Balconies. Gazebos.”
“Yes, that’s why we’re here, your inimitable work with gazebos. You can forget the act. We know who you are. And they know who you are, and they’re here, so let’s get the fuck out while we can.”
He took a moment to choose his words, because he had the feeling he would get only one more shot at this. “My name is Wil Parke. I’m a carpenter. I have a girlfriend and she’s waiting out front to pick me up. I don’t know who you think I am, or why you stuck a . . . a thing in my eye, but I’m nobody. I promise you I’m nobody.”
The short man had been packing equipment into a brown satchel, and now he slung it around one shoulder and peered into Wil’s face. He had thinning hair and anxious brows. Wil might have pegged him for an accountant, ordinarily.
“I tell you what,” Wil said. “I’ll go into a stall and close the door. Twenty minutes. I’ll wait twenty minutes. It’ll be like we never met.”
The short man glanced at the tall man.
“I’m not the guy,” Wil said. “I am not the guy.”
“The problem with that little plan, Wil,” said the tall man, “is that if you stay here, in twenty minutes you’ll be dead. If you go to your girlfriend, who I’m sorry to say you can no longer trust, you’ll also be dead. If you do anything other than come with us now, quickly and cooperatively, again, I’m afraid, dead. It may not seem like it, but we are the only people who can save you from that.” His eyes searched Wil’s. “I can see, though, that you’re not finding this very persuasive, so let me switch to a more direct method.” He held open his coat. Nestled against his side, nose down in a thigh holster, was a short, wide shotgun. It made no sense, because they were in an airport. “Come or I will shoot you through the fucking kidneys.”
“Yes,” Wil said. “Okay, you make a good point. I’ll cooperate.” The key was to get out of the restroom. The airport was full of security. Once he was out, a push, a yell, some running: This was how he would escape.
“Nope,” said the short man.
“No,” agreed the tall man. “I see it. Dope him up.”
• • •
A door opened. On the other side of it was a world of stunted color and muted sound, as if something was stuck in Wil’s ears, and eyes, and possibly brain. He shook his head to clear it, but the world grew dark and angry and would not stay upright. The world did not like to be shaken. He understood that now. He wouldn’t shake it again. He felt his feet sliding away from him on silent roller skates and reached for a wall for support. The wall cursed and dug its fingers into his arm, and was probably not a wall. It was probably a person.
“You gave him too much,” said the person.
“Safe than sorry,” said another person. They were bad persons, Wil recalled. They were kidnapping him. He felt angry about this, although in a technical kind of way, like taking a stand on principle. He tried to reel in his roller skate feet.
“Jesus,” muttered a person, the tall one with calm eyes. Wil didn’t like this person. He’d forgotten why. No. It was the kidnapping. “Walk.”
He walked, resentfully. There were important facts in his brain but he couldn’t find them. Everything was moving. A stream of airport people broke around him. Everyone going somewhere. Wil had been going somewhere. Meeting someone. To his left, a bird twittered. Or a phone. The short man squinted at a screen. “Rain.”
“Domestic Arrivals. Right ahead.” Wil found this idea amusing: rain in the terminal. “Do we know a Rain?”
“Yeah. Girl. New.”
“Shit,” said the short man. “I hate shooting girls.”
“You get used to it,” said the tall man.
A young couple passed, gripping hands. Lovers. The concept seemed familiar. “This way,” said the tall man, steering Wil into a bookstore. He came face-to-face with a shelf that said NEW RELEASES. Wil’s feet kept skating and he put out a hand to catch himself and felt a sharp pain.
“Possibly nothing,” murmured the tall man, “or possibly Rain, passing behind us now, in a blue summer dress.”
In glossy covers, a reflection skipped by. Wil was trying to figure out what had stabbed him. It was a loose wire in the NEW RELEASES sign. The interesting thing was that being stabbed had helped to clear the fog in his head.
“Busiest part of any store, always the new releases,” said the tall man. “That’s what attracts people. Not the best. The new. Why is that, Wil, do you think?”
Wil pricked himself with the wire. He was too tentative, could hardly feel it, and so tried again, harder. This time a blade of pain swept through his mind. He remembered needles and questions. His girlfriend, Cecilia, was out front in a white SUV. She would be in a two-minute parking bay; they had arranged that carefully. He was late, because of these guys.
“I think we’re good,” said the short man.
“Make sure.” The short man moved away. “All right, Wil,” said the tall man. “In a few moments, we’re going to cross the hall and walk down some stairs. There will be a little circumnavigating of passenger jets, then we’ll board a nice, comfortable twelve-seater. There will be snacks. Drinks, if you’re thirsty.” The tall man glanced at him. “Still with me?”
Wil grabbed the man’s face. He had no plan for what to do next, so wound up just hanging on to the guy’s head and staggering backward until he tripped over a cardboard display. The two of them went down in a tangle of beige coat and scattered books. Run, Wil thought, and yes, that was a solid idea. He found his feet and ran for the exit. In the glass he saw a wild-eyed man and realized it was him. He heard yelps and alarmed voices, possibly the tall man getting up, who had a shotgun, Wil recalled now, a shotgun, which was not the kind of thing you would think could slip your memory.
He stumbled out into an ocean of bright frightened faces and open mouths. It was hard to remember what he was doing. His legs threatened treachery but the motion was good, helping to clear his head. He saw escalators and forged toward them. His back sang with potential shotgun impacts, but the airport people were being very good about moving out of his way, practically throwing themselves aside, for which he was grateful. He reached the escalators but his roller skate feet kept going and he fell flat on his back. The ceiling moved slowly by. The tiles up there were filthy. They were seriously disgusting.
He sat up, remembering Cecilia. Also the shotgun. And, now he thought about it, how about some security? Where were they? Because it was an airport. It was an airport. He grabbed the handrail, intending to pull himself up to look for security, but his knees went in opposite directions and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Body parts telegraphed complaints from faraway places. He rose. Sweat ran into his eyes. Because the head fog wasn’t confusing enough; he needed blurred vision. But he could see light, which meant exit, which meant Cecilia, so he ran on. Someone shouted. The light grew. Frigid air burst around him as if he’d plunged into a mountain lake and he sucked it into his lungs. Snow, he saw. It was snowing. Flakes like tiny stars.
“Help, guy with gun,” he said to a man who looked like a cop but on reflection was probably directing cabs. Orange buses. Parking bays. The two-minute spaces were just a little farther. He almost collided with a trolley-laden family and the man tried to grab his jacket but he kept running and it was starting to make sense, now, running; he was starting to remember how to coordinate the various pieces of his body, and he threw a glance over his shoulder and a pole ran into him.
He tasted blood. Someone asked if he was okay, some kid pulling earbuds out of his hair. Wil stared. He didn’t understand the question. He had run into a pole and all his thoughts had fallen out. He groped for them and found Cecilia. He raised his body like a wreck from the deep and shoved aside the kid and rode forward on a crest of the kid’s abuse. He finally saw it, Cecilia’s car, a white fortress on wheels with VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS on the rear window. Joy drove his steps. He wrenched open the handle and fell inside. He had never been so proud. “Made it,” he gasped. He closed his eyes.
He looked at Cecilia. “What?” He began to feel unsure, because her face was strange. And then it came to him, in a fountain of dread that began somewhere unidentifiable and ended in his testicles: He should not be here. He should not have led men with guns to his girlfriend. That was a stupid thing to do. He felt furious with himself, and dismayed, because it had been so hard to get here, and now he had to run again.
“Wil, what’s wrong?” Her fingers came at him. “Your nose is bleeding.” There was a tiny furrow in her brow, which he knew very well and was sad to leave.
“I ran into a pole.” He reached for the latch. The longer he sat here, the closer the fog pressed.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“Away. Have to—”
“Have to go.”
“Then I’ll drive you somewhere! Stay in your seat!”
That was an idea. Driving. “Yes.”
“You’ll stay if I drive?”
She reached for the ignition. “Okay. Just . . . stay. I’ll take you to a hospital or something. All right?”
“Yes.” He felt relief. Weight stole through his body. He wondered if it was okay to slide into unconsciousness. It seemed out of his hands now. Cecilia would drive to safety. This car was a tank; he had mocked it before, because it was so big and she was so tiny but they were equally aggressive, and now it would save them. He might as well close his eyes a moment.
When he opened them, Cecilia was looking at him. He blinked. He had the feeling he’d fallen asleep. “Why . . .” He sat up.
“Are we moving?” They were not moving. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“Just stay in your seat, until they get here,” Cecilia said. “That’s the important thing.”
He turned in his seat. The glass was fogged over. He couldn’t see what was out there. “Cecilia. Drive. Now.”
She tucked a wisp of hair behind one ear. She did that when she was remembering something. He could see her across a room, talking to somebody, and know she was relating a memory. “Remember the day you met my parents? You were freaking out because you thought we were going to be late. But we weren’t. We weren’t late, Wil.”
He rubbed condensation from the window. Through the whiteout, men in brown suits jogged toward him. “Drive! Cil! Drive!”
“This is just like then,” she said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
He lunged across her, groping for the ignition. “Where are the keys?”
“I don’t have them.”
“I don’t have them anymore.” She put a hand on his thigh. “Just sit with me a minute. Isn’t the snow beautiful?”
“Cil,” he said. “Cil.”
There was a flash of dark movement and the door opened. Hands seized him. He fought the hands, but they were irresistible, and pulled him into the cold. He threw fists in all directions until something hard exploded across the back of his head, and then he was being borne on broad shoulders. Some time seemed to have passed in between, because it was darker. Pain rolled through his head in waves. He saw blacktop and a flapping coattail. “Fuck,” said someone, with frustration. “Forget the plane. They can’t wait for us any longer.”
“Forget the plane? Then what?”
“Other side of those buildings, there’s a fire path, take us to the freeway.”
“We drive? Are you kidding? They’ll close the freeway.”
“Not if we’re fast.”
“Not if we’re . . . ?” said the shorter man. “This is fucked! It’s fucked because you wouldn’t leave when I said!”
“Shush,” said the tall man. They stopped moving. The wind blew awhile. Then there was some running, and Wil heard an engine, a car stopping. “Out,” said the tall man, and Wil was manhandled into a small vehicle. The short man came in behind him. A disco ball dangled from the mirror. A row of stuffed animals with enormous black eyes smiled at him from the dash. A blue rabbit held a flag on a stick, championing some country Wil didn’t recognize. He thought he might be able to stab that into somebody’s face. He reached for it but the short man got there first. “No,” said the short man, confiscating the rabbit.
The engine revved. “How’d it go with the girlfriend, Wil?” the tall man said. He steered the car around a pillar marked D3, which Wil recognized as belonging to the parking garage. “Are you ready to consider that we know what we’re doing?”
“This is a mistake,” said the short man. “We should stay on foot.”
“The car is fine.”
“It’s not fine. Nothing is fine.” He had a short, angry-looking submachine gun in his lap. Wil had somehow not noticed that. “Wolf was on us from the start. They knew.”
“Brontë fucked us!” said the short man. “She’s fucked us and you won’t see it!”
The tall man aimed the car at a collection of low hangars and warehouse-like buildings. As they drew nearer, the wind picked up, spitting ice down the funnels made by their walls. The car shook. Wil, jammed between the two men, leaned on one, then the other.
“This car sucks,” said the short man.
A small figure loomed out of the gloom ahead. A girl, wearing a blue dress. Her hair danced in the wind, but she was standing very still.
The short man leaned forward. “Is that Rain?”
“I think so.”
The engine whined. The girl grew in the windshield. Flowers on her dress, Wil saw. Yellow flowers.
“Ah, fuck,” said the tall man, almost too quietly to hear, and the car began to scream. The world shifted. Weight forced Wil sideways. Things moved beyond the glass. A creature, a behemoth with searing eyes and silver teeth, fell upon them. The car bent and turned. The teeth were a grille, Wil realized, and the eyes headlights, because the creature was an SUV. It chewed the front of the car and bellowed and shook and ran into the brick wall. Wil put his arms around his head, because everything was breaking.
He heard groans. Shuffling. The tick of the engine cooling. He raised his head. The tall man’s shoes were disappearing through a jagged hole where the windshield had been. The short man was fumbling with his door latch, but in a way that suggested to Wil that he was having trouble making his hands do what he wanted. The interior of the car was oddly shaped. He tried to push something off his shoulder but it was the roof.
The short man’s door squealed and jammed. The tall man appeared on the other side and wrenched it open. The short man crawled out and looked back at Wil. “Come on.”
Wil shook his head.
The short man breathed a curse. He went away and the tall man’s face dipped into view. “Hey. Wil. Wil. Take a look to your right there. Lean forward a little. That’s it. Can you see?”
The side window was a half-peeled spiderweb, but beyond that he could see the vehicle that had attacked them. It was a white SUV. Its front was crumpled against the wall. Steam issued from around its bent front wheels. The sticker on the rear window said: VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS.
“Your girlfriend just tried to kill us, Wil. She drove right at us. And I’m not sure if you can see from there, but she didn’t even stop to put on a seat belt. That’s how focused she was. Can you see her, Wil?”
“No,” he said. But he could.
“Yes, and you need to get out of the car, because there are more where she came from. There are always more.”
He got out of the car. He was intending to punch the man in the jaw, knock him down and maybe choke the life out of him, watch those eyes go dim, but something snared his wrists. By the time he realized the short man was handcuffing him in white plastic, it was done. The tall man pushed him forward. “Walk.”
“No! No! Cecilia!”
“She’s dead,” said the tall man. “Faster.”
“I’ll kill you,” Wil said.
The short man jogged ahead of them, cradling his submachine gun. His head moved from side to side. He was probably looking for that girl, the one they’d called Rain. The girl who had stood like she was nailed to the blacktop, like she could stare down a car. “Utility van in the hangar there,” said the short man. “May have keys.”
Some men in hard hats and overalls approached. The short man screamed at them to lie down and not fucking move. The tall man pulled open the door of a white van and put Wil in it. Wil swung around so that when the tall man followed him in, Wil could kick his teeth down his throat, but a flash of blue in the side mirror caught his eye. He peered at it. There was something blue crouched under a refueling truck. A blue dress.
The van’s side door was pulled open and the short man came in. He looked at Wil. “What?”
Wil said nothing. The tall man started the engine. He had slid into the van without Wil noticing.
“Wait up,” said the short man. “He’s seen something.”
The tall man glanced at him. “Did you?”
“No,” he said.
“Shit,” said the short man, and tumbled out of the van. Wil heard his footsteps. He didn’t want to look at the side mirror, because the tall man was watching, but he glanced once and there was nothing there anymore. A few moments passed. There was a noise. The girl in the blue dress burst past Wil’s window, startling him, her blond hair streaming. There was a hammer of gunfire. She fell bonelessly to the concrete.
“Don’t move,” the tall man said to Wil.
The short man came around the van and looked at them. The barrel of his gun was smoking. He looked at the girl and gave a short, barking laugh. “I got her!”
Wil could see the girl’s eyes. She was sprawled on her stomach, hair sprayed across her face, but he could still see that her eyes were the same blue as her dress. Dark blood stole across the concrete.
“Fucking got her!” said the short man. “Holy shit! I nailed a poet!”
The tall man revved the engine. “Let’s go.”
The short man gestured: Wait. He moved closer to the girl, keeping his gun trained on her, as if there was some chance she might get up. She didn’t move. He reached her and proddel her with his shoe.
The girl’s eyes shifted. “Contrex helo siq rattrak,” she said, or something similar. “Shoot yourself.”
The short man brought the tip of his gun to his chin and pulled the trigger. His head snapped back. The tall man kicked open the van door and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. He discharged it at the girl. Her body jerked. The tall man walked forward, ejected the spent cartridge, and fired again. Thunder rolled around the hangar.
By the time the tall man returned to the van, Wil was halfway out the door. “Back,” said the tall man. His eyes were full of death and Wil saw clearly that they were now dealing in absolutes. This knowledge passed between them. Wil got back in the van. His bound hands pressed into his back. The tall man put the van into reverse, navigated around the two bodies, and accelerated into the night. He did not speak or look in Wil’s direction. Wil watched buildings flit by without hope: He might have had a chance to escape, but that was over now.
AIRPORT GUNMAN “HAD NOTHING TO LIVE FOR”
PORTLAND, OR: The maintenance worker who fatally shot two people before taking his own life, triggering an eight-hour shutdown of Portland International Airport, suffered from depression following the breakup of his marriage, friends and family said yesterday.
Amelio Gonzalez, 37, told a friend he had nothing left to live for after a court decision awarded full custody of his two children, 11 and 7, to his ex-wife, Melinda Gonzalez, three months ago.
It is believed Mr. Gonzalez sought medical assistance and was prescribed antidepression medication.
Colleagues remain in disbelief at Mr. Gonzalez’s actions, describing him as a friendly, generous man who often went out of his way to help others.
“Amelio was a flat-out nice guy,” said Jerome Webber, who worked with Mr. Gonzalez in aircraft maintenance for two years prior to the incident. “A little quiet, but anyone would be knocked around by [his circumstances]. He’s just the last guy you’d expect to ever do anything like this.”
Airport management defended their hiring practices, saying all employees were subject to regular psychological checkups. Mr. Gonzalez passed such a check as recently as four weeks ago.
“We are doing everything we can to get to the bottom of this,” said George Aftercock, manager of security for Portland International Airport. “We want to know how a model employee can suddenly snap.”
Amelio Gonzalez shot two people on Saturday. A third person, a woman, is believed to have died in a car accident while trying to flee. Their names have not yet been released.
An earlier disturbance in which a man ran through the Arrivals hall in an agitated state, initially thought to be connected to the shooting, has since been found to be unrelated.
In reply to: http://nationstates.org/pages/topic—8724511-post-16.html
In my city we spent $1.6 billion on a new ticketing system for the trains. We replaced paper tickets with smartcards and now they can tell where people get on and off. So, question: how is that worth $1.6 billion?
People say it’s the government being incompetent, and ok. But this is happening all over. All the transit networks are getting smartcards, the grocery stores are taking your name, the airports are getting face recognition cameras. Those cameras, they don’t work when people try to avoid them. Like, they can be fooled by glasses. We KNOW they’re ineffective as anti-terrorism devices, but we still keep installing them.
All of this stuff—the smartcards, the ID systems, the “anti-congestion” car-tracking tech—all of it is terrible at what it’s officially supposed to do. It’s only good for tracking the rest of us, the 99.9% who just use the smartcard or whatever and let ourselves be tracked because it’s easier.
I’m not a privacy nut, and I don’t care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they’re all working for that data, how much money they’re spending, and how they never admit that’s what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.
“Hmm,” said the man in the trucker cap. “I think . . . no . . . just a second here . . .”
“Take your time, sir,” said Emily. “The queen isn’t going nowhere. She’s quite comfortable under there, in all her skirts. She’ll wait for you all day.” She smiled at a man standing behind the trucker. The man smiled back, remembered his wife, frowned. Forget that guy, then.
“On the left,” said a woman in an I ❤ SAN FRANCISCO sweater. Her eyes darted at Emily. “I think.”
“You think?” said the trucker.
“I’m pretty sure.”
Emily slipped the woman a wink. You got it. The woman’s lips tightened, pleased.
“I dunno,” said the trucker. “I was thinking middle.”
“The queen is quick on her feet, sir. No shame in not being able to follow her. Take a guess.”
“Middle,” said the trucker, because Take a guess meant, That’s enough, Benny. Benny wasn’t a trucker, of course. He had found that cap in an alley. With it pulled low, and his straggly sand-colored beard, he could pass.
“You sure, now? You got some advice from this lady here.”
“Naw, definitely middle.”
“As you say, sir.” Emily flipped the middle card. The crowd murmured. “Sorry, sir. She got away from you.” It took a little work to shift the queen from right to left, a Mexican Turnover, but she made it. “On the left, just like the lady said. Should have listened. Quick eye you have there, ma’am. Very quick.” She spread the cards, scooped them up, and flipped them from hand to hand, fast but not too fast. Sections of the crowd began to move away. Emily tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. She was wearing a big floppy hat with colored panels, which she had to keep pushing back to keep it from falling over her eyes. “Care to try, ma’am? Only two dollars. Simplest thing in the world, if you’ve got the eye for it.”
The woman hesitated. Only one game in her. Sometimes Emily would let a mark win the first game so they’d want to play again, and again, and again. But that only worked on a certain type of person. Still, two dollars. Two dollars was fine.
The speaker was a young man with long hair in a cheap, not-quite-black suit and a pale yellow tie. A plastic ID hung from his shirt pocket. There were four of them, two more boys and a girl, all with that look, like college students on summer jobs. Salespeople, maybe, of something cheap and devious. Not cops. She could tell that. Cops were a constant hazard on the pier. She grinned. The woman in the sweater was moving away, but that didn’t matter. Cheap-suit guy was better. A lot better. “All right, sir. Step on up. You did me a favor, I think. That lady may have cleaned me out.”
“I may clean you out,” said the guy.
“Ho, ho. A big talker. That’s fine, sir. Talk as much as you like. No price tag on talking. The game, though, that’s two dollars.”
He dropped two bills onto Emily’s card table. She found him irritating, although wasn’t sure why: Guys like this, arrogant, an audience watching, they were gold. They would lose and double up forever. You had to throw them a win here and there, so they wouldn’t blow up, accuse you of cheating. But if you were smart, they would play all day. They would do it because once they were in the hole, their pride wouldn’t let them out. She’d taken $180 from a guy like this not two months ago, most of it on the last game. His neck had bulged and his eyes had watered and she saw how much he wanted to hit her. But there was a crowd. She had eaten that night.
She slung the queen and two aces onto the table. “Catch her if you can.” She flipped them, began to switch them around. “Loves her exercise, does the queen. Always takes her morning constitutional. Problem is, where does she go?” The guy wasn’t even looking at the cards. “Hard to win if you don’t watch, sir. Very tricky.” His ID tag said: HI! I’M LEE! Below that: AUTHORIZED QUESTIONNAIRE ADMINISTRATION AGENT. “Lee, is it? You must be good if you can follow the queen without looking at her, Lee. Very good.”
“I am,” he said, smiling. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her.
She decided to take Lee’s two dollars. If he ponied up again, she would take that. She would ask if he wanted to double up and she would take that and she would be merciless, not give him a single game, because Lee was a dick.
The crowd murmured. She was flicking the cards too fast, holding nothing back. She stopped. Pulled away her hands. There was a collective titter and some applause. She was breathing fast.
“Well,” she said. “Let’s see how good you are, Lee.”
He still hadn’t looked at the cards. The guy behind and to his right, one of the market researchers, smiled at her brilliantly, as if he’d only just noticed her. The other boy muttered to the girl, “Good thing is I’m right where I wanna be, right in the best possible place,” and the girl nodded and said, “Yeah, you’re so right.”
“On the right,” Lee said.
Wrong. “You sure about that? Want a moment to think?” But her hands were already moving, eager to claim victory. “Last chance to—”
“Queen on the right,” he said, and as Emily touched the cards, she felt her fingers slide under and to the right. Her left hand went out in a flashy extension that did nothing but draw the eye, and her right slipped one card below the other.
There was scattered applause. Emily stared. The queen of hearts was on the right. She had switched them. At the last moment, she had switched them. Why had she done that?
“Well done, sir.” She noticed Benny shifting his feet, glancing around for cops, no doubt wondering what the hell she was doing. “Congratulations.” She reached into her money pouch. Two bucks. A difference of four, between winning and losing. That was a meal. It was a down payment on a night of chemical joy. She held out the bills, and when Lee took them, it hurt. He tucked them into his wallet. The girl glanced at her watch, something plastic and shiny. One of the boys yawned. “Play again? Double up, perhaps? A man like you likes to play for real money, am I right?” She was pushing, could hear the strain in her own voice, because she knew she’d lost him.
“No. Thank you.” He looked bored. “There’s nothing here I want.”
• • •
“What the fuck?” said Benny.
She kept walking, hunched over, her Pikachu bag on her back, the floppy hat wobbling about. The sun was setting but heat radiated out of the sidewalk, coming off the brick tenements in waves. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You never let a guy like that win the first game.” Benny was carrying the table. “He gets ahead, it’s over. He doesn’t care about money. He cares about beating you. You gave him what he wanted.”
“I flipped the wrong card, okay? I flipped the wrong card.”
“That guy was going to play.” Benny kicked a plastic bottle. It spun across the sidewalk and onto the road, where a passing car ran over it with a crunch. “He was good for twenty, easy. Maybe fifty.”
Benny stopped. Emily stopped, too. He was a good guy, Benny. Until he wasn’t. “Are you taking this seriously?”
“I am, Benny.” She tugged at his arm.
“Yeah. Fifty bucks.” She felt her eyes widen. This would piss Benny off, but she couldn’t help it. She was perverse sometimes.
“Come on.” She tugged his arm. It was like stone. “Let’s get some food. I’ll cook you something.”
“Fuck you!” He shook her off, let the table drop to the sidewalk. His fists bunched. A passing man in a collared business shirt glanced at her, then at Benny, then away. Thanks, guy. “Get away from me!”
“Benny, come on.”
He took a step forward. She flinched. When he hit, he meant it. “Do not follow me home.”
“Fine,” she said. “Jesus, fine.” She waited until the violence drained out of him, then put out her hand. “At least give me my money. I made a hundred twenty today; give me half.” Then she ran, because Benny’s eyes popped in the way that meant she’d pushed him too far, again. Her Pikachu bag bounced against her back. Her floppy hat fell off and she left it on the sidewalk. When she reached the corner, Benny was half a block back. He’d chased her, but not far. She was glad she’d held on to her bag. Her jacket was in there.
• • •
She slept in Gleeson’s Park, beneath a hedge that people didn’t notice and that had escape routes on two sides. She woke to a midnight screaming match, but it was nobody she knew and too far away to be a threat. She closed her eyes and fell asleep to fuck and cunt and mine. Then it was dawn and a drunk was pissing on her legs.
She scrambled up. “Dude. Dude.”
The man stumbled back. “Sorry.” He barely got the word out.
She inspected herself. Spatters on her pants, boots. “Dude, the fuck?”
“I . . . didn’t . . . see . . .”
“Fuck,” she said, and pulled her bag out of the hedge and went looking for a bathroom.
• • •
There was a public restroom in a corner of the park. It wasn’t a place she went if she could help it, but the sun was rising and her pants were stiffening with urine. She circled its cinder block exterior, carrying her boots, until she was sure it was empty, then stood in the doorway, thinking. Only one way out, was the problem with public restrooms. One way out and you could holler all you wanted; nobody would come to help. But she went in. She checked the lock, just in case it had been repaired since the last time she was here. No. She tugged off her pants and stuffed them and her sock under a faucet. Concrete air tickled her skin. She threw glances toward the doorway, because this was a really bad position to be in should anyone appear, but no one came, so she got confident and lifted her leg to wash beneath the faucet. The paper towel dispenser was empty, so she mopped herself dry with translucent squares of toilet paper.
She opened her bag. Maybe better clothes had materialized while she wasn’t looking. No. She closed the bag and wrung out her jeans as best she could. What she would have liked to do was carry them over to the park and dry them on the grass while she lay in the sun, legs bare, eyes closed. Just soaking up rays. Her and her jeans. Another time, maybe. Another universe. She began to pull on her damp pants.
• • •
As she wandered down Fleet, her stomach tweaked. It was too early for the soup kitchens. She thought about hitting up a friend. Maybe Benny had cooled down. She chewed her lip. She felt like a McMuffin.
Then she saw him: Lee, of the long hair and cheap suit, Lee who had taken her two dollars. He was planted on a street corner, clipboard in hand, approaching commuters with a fake smile. He was in market research, she remembered; she’d seen that on his ID. She watched him. It felt like he owed her.
When she approached, his eyes shifted to her briefly from the man he was quizzing. “You owe me breakfast,” she said.
“Thank you so much,” Lee told the man. “I appreciate your time.” He wrote something on his clipboard and flipped the page. When he was done writing, he smiled at Emily. “It’s the hustler.”
“I let you win,” she said. “I took pity on you. Buy me an Egg McMuffin.”
“You let me win?”
“Come on. I’m a professional. You don’t take a game off me unless I give it to you.” She smiled. It was hard to tell if this was working. “Fair’s fair. I’m hungry.”
“I’d have thought a professional could afford her own Egg McMuffin.”
“Sure,” she said, “but I’m letting you pay because I like your face.”
Lee looked amused. It was the first nice expression she’d seen from him. “Okay.” He tucked his pen into his clipboard. “Tell you what, I will buy you an Egg McMuffin.”
“Two Egg McMuffins,” she said.
• • •
She bit down and it was as good as she’d imagined. Across the Formica table, Lee sat with his arms spread along the back of the booth seat. Outside, children yipped and chased each other around a neon playground. Who brought their kids to McDonald’s for breakfast? She shouldn’t be judging. She gulped coffee.
“You are hungry,” said Lee.
“Tough times.” She chewed her muffin. “It’s the economy.”
Lee wasn’t eating. “How old are you?”
“I mean really.”
“Eighteen.” She was sixteen.
“You look young to be on your own.”
She shrugged, unwrapping the next McMuffin. Lee had bought her three, plus the coffee and hash browns. “I’m okay. I’m fine. How old are you?”
He watched her devour the muffin. “Why did you want a McMuffin?”
“I haven’t eaten in, like, a day.”
“I mean a McMuffin in particular.”
“I like them.”
She eyed him. It was a stupid question. “I like them.”
“Right.” He looked away for the first time.
She didn’t want to talk about herself. “Where are you from? Not here.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s a gift.”
“Well,” he said, “you’re right. I travel. City to city.”
“Asking people to fill out questionnaires?”
“You must be really good at that,” she said. “You must be, like, extremely talented at asking people to fill out questionnaires.” His expression didn’t change. She didn’t know why she was trying to needle him. He had bought her food. But still. She didn’t like him. It took more than McMuffins to change that. “What brings you to San Francisco?”
“Oh yeah?” She hoped this wasn’t a running situation. She’d had enough of running. She swallowed the last of the McMuffin and started on the hash browns, because it would be good if she could get all this down first.
“Not you in particular. Your type. I’m looking for people who are persuasive and intransigent.”
“Well, bingo,” she said, although she didn’t know what intransigent meant.
“Unfortunately, you failed.”
“You let me take your money.”
“Hey. That was a pity win. I already said. You want to try again?”
“I’m serious. You won’t win again.” She meant it.
“Hmm,” he said. “Okay, tell you what. I’ll give you another shot.”
Benny had her cards. But she could get more, then she’d push this guy to a hundred, ask to see color, and the second the bills touched the table, she’d grab them and run. She’d go to Benny and tease him awhile. Guy was good for about twenty, you said? She loved the look he got when she brought him money. Maybe fifty? “Let me finish my coffee, we’ll go to the store across the street—”
“Not cards. A different kind of test.”
“Oh,” she said doubtfully. “Like what?”
“Like, don’t blow me.”
She was startled, but his expression hadn’t changed, so maybe she heard this wrong, or it was an expression, somehow. Maybe he meant: Don’t blow me off. There were plenty of people nearby, so no immediate problem. But she’d need to find a way to leave alone.
“My job is not actually to administer questionnaires. My job is to test people. Think of it as a job interview that you don’t know you’re having.”
She swallowed the last of the hash browns. “Well, thanks for thinking of me, but you know, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got going on now. Thanks, though.” She gulped coffee dregs. “Thanks for the breakfast.” She reached for her bag.
She hesitated. “How much?”
“How much do you want?”
“I make five hundred a day now,” she said, which was an outrageous lie, of course. She made between zero and two hundred dollars a day, and split that with Benny.
“This would be more.”
“How much more?” She caught herself. What was she thinking? He was wearing a plastic watch. He would take her to some dingy apartment and lock the door. There was no job. “Look, you know what, I’m just gonna pass.”
He reached into a pocket and opened his wallet. She’d noted yesterday that he had no more than twenty dollars in there. He unzipped a section and tossed notes onto the table. She stared. There were a lot of them.
“We wear cheap clothing because it would seem odd if we stood around on street corners in ten thousand dollar suits.”
“I see,” she said, not really listening.
“Let go of your bag.”
She looked at him. Apparently it was obvious that she had been thinking of snatching that cash and running like hell. She released the bag.
“You get a first-class air ticket to our head office in DC. You spend one week there, doing a round of tests. If you pass, you become a trainee on a starting salary of sixty thousand dollars. Fail, and we fly you home again with five thousand in an envelope for your trouble. How does that sound?”
“Like a scam.”
He laughed. “I know. It does sound like a scam. I thought the same thing when they approached me.”
She kept looking at the cash on the table. She didn’t want to. It was irresistible.
“You went to school,” Lee said. “I mean, at some point. And it didn’t suit you very well. They wanted to teach you things you didn’t care about. Dates and math and trivia about dead presidents. They didn’t teach persuasion. Your ability to persuade is the single most important determinant of your quality of life, and they didn’t cover that at all. Well, we do. And we’re looking for students with natural aptitude.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m interested; I’ll take a ticket.”
He smiled. She remembered his comment about the blow job. She must have gotten that backward. He must want her to blow him in exchange for the air ticket. That way made sense. She wondered if there really was a job. He was kind of believable.
“Show me something,” she said. “Something official.”
He slid a business card across the table. His full name was Lee Bob Black. She tucked this into her bag, feeling better. This card enabled her to call Lee’s boss and explain what Lee had asked her to do in exchange for a job. She hoped it was a big company, the kind that hated publicity. She hoped there was really a job, because she would be awesome at it.
“Now you know who I am,” said Lee. “Who are you?”
“Are you a cat person or a dog person?”
“Cats or dogs? Which do you prefer?”
“What do you care?”
He shrugged. “I’m just making conversation.”
“I hate cats. Too sneaky.”
“Ha,” he said. “What’s your favorite color?”
“This is your idea of conversation?”
“Just answer the question.”
“I’m just saying, as someone who knows about banter, you’re really terrible at it,” she said. “Black.”
“Close your eyes and pick a number between one and a hundred.”
“Are these from your questionnaires?”
“You’re surveying me? Is this the test?”
“Part of it.”
“I’m not closing my eyes. Thirty-three.”
“Do you love your family?”
She didn’t move. “Are you serious? You think I’d be here if I had a good family?” She almost got up. But she didn’t. “No.”
“Okay, then,” said Lee. “Last question. Why did you do it?”
“Don’t manufacture an answer,” said Lee. “I’ll be able to tell, and it will invalidate the test.”
“This is a bullshit question, isn’t it?”
“How do you mean?”
“You don’t even know what you’re asking. You just want me to think you do.”
“This doesn’t sound like a survey.”
“It’s a personality test.”
“Is this Scientology?”
“I promise it’s not Amway. It’s no one you’ve heard of. You’re very close, Emily. What’s your answer?”
“To your bullshit question?”
“You don’t have to believe it. You just have to answer honestly.”
“Fine,” she said. “I did it because I felt like it.”
Lee nodded. “One disappointing thing about this job. People always turn out to be less interesting than you hope.” Before Emily could decide whether he’d insulted her, he spoke a jumble of words. They slid by her and were gone. She felt dazed. “Go to the restroom,” he said. “Wait there for me.”
• • •
She walked to the counter. She was leaving her bag behind, but that was okay. Lee would look after it. She asked a boy behind the register for the bathroom key and he gave her a look but handed it over. There was a single stall. She closed the toilet lid and sat on it.
After a minute, the door opened and Lee came in, talking on a cell phone. Her heart thumped. He was kind of handsome. His face grew on you. She even liked his hair. She sort of loved him. “Yeah,” Lee told his phone. “But hey, we’re here, let’s give it one more pass.” He stopped in front of her. She watched him fumbling with his zipper. She was in an interesting place. She was present, but remote. Everything was curious and amusing. Lee jammed his cell phone against his shoulder, dug into his pants, and pulled out his penis. It was longer than she expected. It bobbed in front of her, curving upward before her eyes. “I’m actually with her now,” said Lee. “Thought there was something there, for a minute.” He covered the phone. “Put it in your mouth.”
She put her hand around his penis. She opened her mouth. She thought: Wait, what?
“I know,” said Lee. “Every time.” He laughed. His penis jumped in her hand.
She punched his balls. Lee howled. She tried to kick him but he was doubling over, in full retreat, and she caught his knee or elbow or something. She ran for the door and pulled it open. Heads turned. “Pervert!” she yelled to the turning faces. “There’s a pervert in there!” She scooped up her bag. Not one person had moved. “Pervert!” she shouted, and ran.
• • •
In the alley, boys in baseball caps were dealing drugs or freestyling lyrics or whatever they did and one stepped toward her, his hands out. She blasted past him. Her bag bounced. It was three blocks before she felt safe enough to stop and check whether Lee was following. No. She dropped her bag for a second and put her hands on her knees to suck air. People flowed around her. What had just happened? She remembered the details but it didn’t make sense. She didn’t know what she had been thinking.
She looked up. Lee was shambling toward her, a hand clutched over his groin, his face contorted. She jerked upright. On the other side of the street, a girl with long brown hair and a cheap suit stepped onto the road, backed away from a car, then ran at her through traffic. The way she was angling, she wouldn’t cut Emily off so much as corral her, force her eastward, and this set off all kinds of alarm bells, because when someone did that, they had friends. She craned her neck and spotted two clipboard-carrying boys in suits heading straight at her. “Help!” she said, but to no one in particular, and of course there was no help. She spied an alley and ran for it. The bag slipped and she panicked and let it drop, which was unthinkably terrible because without her bag she had nothing; she would have to rely on people. She passed an office building, a beautiful business couple emerging from its glass revolving doors like an advertisement, and she thought about running in there, to whatever clean, safe, corporate-warmed world they had come from. But that would never work; that would end in her being tossed out the same door by a security guard in charge of protecting that world from people like her. She kept running. The alley turned and dipped and became a driveway. Not good, not good. It terminated at a locked roller door painted KEEP CLEAR LOADING AREA. She started back the way she had come, but they were already here. One of the boys held her Pikachu bag. She shoved a hand into her jeans pocket. “I’ve got Mace.” She backed up until she hit the roller door. All those office windows: Surely someone would be looking down. Maybe if she screamed. Maybe if there were angels.
“Take a moment,” said the girl. “Get your breath back.” Beside her, Lee bent and spat.
“Stay away from me.”
“Sorry about the chase. We just really, really didn’t want you to get away.”
“I will fuck you up,” said Emily.
“It’s okay.” The girl smiled quizzically. “It’s okay, Emily; you passed.”
To: All Staff
From: Cameron Winters
Hi guys!! Just a quick one to say we ARE getting leave loading on the 29th so that’s double time for all casuals! Nice one head office!
I’m away for the long weekend so Melanie will be CRO. On her 18th birthday too (Saturday)!! Sorry Melanie it just slipped out!!!
Also please please!! be careful who you give the bathroom key to. We had a junkie and a poor guy walked in on her, she freaked out and scared the customers, obviously not a good look!!!
The van’s tires slipped on the freeway merge and the interior filled with the light from an approaching eighteen-wheeler. “Fuck!” said the tall man. A horn bellowed. Wil felt a looseness, a surrender of the vehicle to natural forces, then the wheels bit and straightened them up between the lanes. The truck’s horn blew endlessly.
He wondered how much damage he would do to himself if he kicked open the door and flung himself out at this speed. Probably a lot. His hands were bound.
“Fuck,” said the man. He was silent a moment. “Fuck.”
Wil said nothing.
“What’s your name?”
“Not now! Before!”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“When you lived in Broken Hill, Australia. What was your name?”
“I’ve never lived in—”
“I can hear your accent!”
“I grew up in Australia. In Melbourne. But I’ve never been to Broken Hill.”
The man hauled the wheel. The van slid across three lanes and slewed to a stop in the emergency lane. He pulled on the hand brake, took the shotgun, and tried to drag Wil out of the van. Wil resisted and the man hit him twice with the shotgun butt and Wil tumbled out into snow. When he got to his feet, he was looking into a gun barrel.
“You’re thinking if you’re not who I want, I’ll let you go,” said the man. “When in fact, if you’re not the outlier, I’m going to shoot you and leave your body in the snow.”
“I’m the outlier.”
“Eighteen months ago, where did you live?”
“Where in Broken Hill?”
A car blew by. “Main Street.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” said the tall man.
“Tell me what you want. I don’t know what you want.”
The man sank to his haunches. “You drive a Taurus. You’ve been in the States eight months. A year before that, you lived in Broken Hill. You had a dog.”
A truck passed, wheels spitting road ice. “Not the outlier,” said the man. He shook his head. “Well, fuck.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Forget about it,” said the man, standing. “Get up. Turn around.”
“You heard me.”
He rose, cautiously.
“It doesn’t matter. Away from the road.”
“Okay, let’s think about this.”
“You don’t walk, I’ll shoot you here.”
“I’m not walking into the woods so you can shoot me there!”
“Fine,” said the man, and there was a rustling, and Wil started walking. His shoes sank into the snow. It wasn’t more than ankle deep, but he made it look like it was. “Faster.”
“I’m trying not to shoot you,” said the man. “But it’s getting fucking difficult.”
He forged through deepening snow. His mind was a great white expanse. A snowscape, devoid of plans that ended with him alive.
“Veer right. You’re trying to angle back to the road.”
He veered. There were trees ahead, a thin stick forest. He was going to be shot in the woods. His body would disappear beneath the snowfall. In the spring, he would be gnawed by foxes. He would be discovered by Boy Scouts and poked with sticks.
“Stop. This will do.”
“Don’t shoot me in the back!” He turned, fighting snow. The man was ten feet away, unreachable in drifts this deep. “Leave me here. I can’t make it to anywhere in a hurry. You can get away.”
The man raised the shotgun butt to his shoulder.
“At least have the . . . goddamn common courtesy . . . wait! Tell me why! Tell me why! You can’t just shoot me! In the bathroom, you said to hop and I didn’t! That meant something, didn’t it?”
“Don’t shoot me in the face!”
The man exhaled. “Fine. Turn around.”
“Okay! Okay! Just let me . . .” He pulled one foot out of the snow, put it down again. His nose ran. “Motherfucker!”
“I’m shooting you in five seconds,” said the tall man. “You arrange yourself however you like between now and then.”
He sank to the ground, because it didn’t matter. “I’m sorry, Cecilia. I’m sorry you died. I never said I loved you and I should have. It’s just the word. The bare words I couldn’t say, and I should have.” He was going to pass out. The man would shoot his unconscious body in the snow. It was probably best.
Time passed. He raised his head. The tall man was still there. “What did you say?”
“The . . . I . . . never told Cecilia I loved her. I should have said the words.”
“You said bare words.”
The silence stretched. He couldn’t help himself. “Are you going to shoot me?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
His bowels shivered.
The man lowered the shotgun. “She made you forget,” said the man. “You really don’t know who you are.”
Wil sat in the snow, teeth chattering.
“New plan,” said the man. “Get back in the van.”
• • •
The world slid by in exit ramps and yellow-lit gas stations and trees dressed in snow. The van’s wipers thumped. Wil’s eye throbbed. The driver’s window was half-cranked, letting in furious air.
The man glanced at him. “You feel okay? You look washed out.” He gestured. “Your face.”
Theoretically, the snow banked up alongside the freeway was a couple of feet deep. He could possibly survive a leap. Then: flailing through snow. Hearing the van brake behind him. The door pop open. Not so good.
The man waggled a dash control. “Heater doesn’t work. I need the window open to keep from fogging up.”
Practically, it was highly unlikely he could get the door open with his feet. Practically, he wasn’t going anywhere until the man decided to pull over.
“You actually look a little hypoglycemic,” said the man.
He could kick. He could try to force a crash. A problem here was the man was wearing a seat belt and Wil wasn’t. A crash was therefore likely to hurt Wil a lot more. It was a last-resort kind of plan.
“Stop it,” said the man. “You’re not going anywhere so stop fucking thinking about it.”
He looked out the side window.
“Next gas station, I’ll pull over,” said the man. “Get you some jelly beans.”
• • •
They turned in to a glowing gas station and stopped at the farthest pump from the store. “Okay,” said the man. “Before we proceed, some ground rules.” He snapped his fingers, because Wil was staring at the store. “No running. No screaming for help. No mouthing secret messages to the cashier, looking directly into security cameras, saying you need the bathroom then locking yourself in, et cetera, et cetera. Doing any of those things will cause me”—he rapped the shotgun, the nose of which poked out from the footwell—“to use this. Understand?”
“Not on you. You, I need. I count three people in there. Do you want me to shoot three people?”
“Neither do I. So don’t make me shoot three people.” He twirled a finger. “Turn around.”
“So I can cut the cord.”
His bindings loosened; he brought forward his arms against the protest of his muscles and rubbed his wrists. He felt a lot more optimistic with his hands free.
“Any questions?” said the man.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Tom,” said the man. “You asked who I am. I’m Tom.”
Wil said nothing.
“So let’s get these snacks,” Tom said, and opened the door.
• • •
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