New Fiction

REVERSE BIRTH : The Battle Against False Consciousness in the Age of Moloch is now available in full on Wattpad or on Medium. It’s free.

I’ll share REVERSE BIRTH : Notes From the Gnarling Nowhere (book 2 in the planned trilogy) starting in March. It will be two chapters every Thursday, just like with book 1.

Below are the first five chapters of book 1.


REVERSE BIRTH

book 1

The Battle Against False Consciousness in the Age of Moloch


1

July 21, 2015

“Our top story this morning is hurricane Evan, which is expected to make landfall sometime this morning in the Florida Keys. Experts upgraded Evan to a category four hurricane last night, and it’s expected to cause devastation across at least six states. Today Show correspondent Serena Michaels is in Florida to report on the storm and she joins us now from Miami Beach. Serena?”

“Thanks Beverly, yes, residents have been evacuated from costal areas because of what’s supposed to be a record-breaking storm swell. Right now, as you can see, the winds are very strong. Wind gusts of a hundred and forty miles per hour have been reported in the Bahamas.”

“The wind looks very intense Serena, are you sure you and your crew are safe?

“I believe we are Beverly. It’s gotten worse just in the last ten minutes, but when we first arrived, it wasn’t raining at all. We got here at around four in the morning during a very unusual electrical storm which was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

“Can you describe what it was like?”

“I’m sorry Beverly, I didn’t quite get that…”

“Can you describe the electrical storm?”

“Oh, yes. The lightning was happening so frequently that we didn’t even need to turn on our lights to set up. The electrical activity in the clouds created a sort of pale blue haze. And the sound –it’s difficult to describe. There were thunderclaps, but also this low hum that sounded like voices. I had our sound engineer record some of it because it was so unusual… It was a demonic sound.”

“I’m sorry Serena, your feed is a bit garbled. Did you say demonic?”

“Yes it sounded demonic. I believe it was a warning from an angry dimension. I… I can’t explain it. I think – arr – inspire – ex–al – ist…”

“We seem to have a bad connection Serena, can you hear me?”

The image froze, stuttered, then came back pixilated and froze again with Serena Michaels farther back from the camera. The last frozen image was of Serena Michaels, hovering out over the ocean, arms and legs splayed. She stood out from the dark clouds in the background because her whole body was illuminated, lit up from within by a bright blue light.

The screen went black.

.

Smik knew that this was the new-product launch he’d been promised, but it was not at all what he’d expected. The last time he’d been told to watch the news on a Tuesday morning for a new-product launch had been on September 11, 2001. This was different, subtler, certainly, but also targeted to a different part of the brain. This was not a political or social agenda being launched, it was not a new phase in consumer conditioning, or an attempt to produce mass PTSD. It didn’t even seem like a whole op yet, more like phase one, or some kind of preamble to the actual event.

Smik sipped his coffee and looked out the window of his apartment. It was still dark out, but he knew it was going to be another absurdly hot day. On the TV, the news anchors expressed concern for the safety of Serena Michaels and her crew. Beverly promised that they were trying to regain communication with the team to find out if everyone was okay, and that they would have an update after the commercial break. Smik noted that the spiritual ascension of Serena Michaels was brought to the public by Cialis and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. He opened his phone and looked at Twitter. By the end of the commercial break, there was already a clip being shared. Serena Michaels was shining bright out over the thrashing ocean in front of the dark clouds of hurricane Evan. The first comment below the video contained one word: ALIENS.

2

Alicia Sche was in a faded row-house in Pittsburgh. She sat on an old couch across from Tasha Pollan and her husband Bill. Tasha’s eyes were red and she occasionally dabbed at them with a crumpled tissue. Bill sat next to her with his arms crossed, radiating hostility toward Alicia.

Alicia addressed Tasha, the mother, and ignored the stepfather. “Your son’s not coming back. There will be a lot of interest in who he was and what kind of family he came from. I’m here to help you present a united front and show Dee in the best possible light. There will be kids across the country who will instinctively identify with Dee. That kind of rapid identification is a very powerful thing. It’s very valuable. Do you follow me?”

She nodded.

“I still want to know who sent you.” The stepfather said. “You haven’t told us what your interest in all this is.”

“I understand your suspicion, it makes sense.” Alicia said. “There will be a lot of people who want something from you –the police, the DA, community leaders, lawyers– but I don’t want anything from you at all. In fact, I want to give you something. In this time of grief and suffering, the last thing you should have to worry about is money.”

“The reverend warned us about you.” Bill Pollan said. “We’re not gonna sign away our right to sue anybody. No way. And it isn’t about the money either, that cop shot Dee for nothing –just shot him dead…”

Dee’s mother sobbed into her wad of tissues.

“Nobody warned you about me.” Alicia said. “ And I don’t want you to sign anything. Do you know why Reverend Sharpton contacted you?”

“Because he wants the world to know what that fuckin’ pig did to Dee…”

“Watch your mouth!” Tasha said to her husband.

“Bill, you’re absolutely wrong.” Alicia said. “What happened to Dee is about to be the biggest news story in the country, and Sharpton wants to be a part of it. I’m not saying he’s not trying to do good, and I’m not saying that he won’t actually do some good, I’m just saying that the reason he’s here isn’t because of the injustice that was done to Dee. He’s here because of the attention that injustice will receive. Dee’s murder will be all anyone talks about for three weeks or so, and then it’ll be over. The news crews will leave and so will the Reverend, and the protestors and supporters will go on to the next outrage, and where will you be? Dee will still be dead. I’m asking you to separate Dee’s murder from all the media attention surrounding it. They’re two very different things. I know you would never feel right profiting from your son’s murder, but profiting from a media circus? There’s no shame in that. Those news crews outside your door represent media conglomerates that make billions of dollars hawking toothpaste and insurance. Viacom is going to make money from Dee’s murder. AOL-Time Warner is going to make money from Dee’s murder. The only question is whether you, Dee’s family, will see any of that money.”

Alicia sensed that they were hooked. It was time to bring out the photos. She opened the envelope and took out four eight-by-ten glossy pictures of Dee Henry, culled from Facebook and the cell phones of Dee and his circle of friends. Each photo had been digitally manipulated. She spread them out on the coffee table in front of the grieving mother and her husband. “Today, the news media will show a photograph of Dee, and that photo will appear across all the major networks. You, as Dee’s family, have a huge influence on which photo of Dee is chosen. If you choose one of these photos, I’ll transfer a large sum of money into your bank account.”

“How much money?” Bill asked.

“One hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” Alicia said. Tasha and Bill looked at each other for a moment. “On the condition that you never tell anyone where you got the money. Understand?”

The couple looked at Alicia and then back down at the photographs on the table: Dee Henry in a kitchen, smiling, wearing a t-shirt with ‘Abercrombie’ emblazoned across the chest; Dee sitting at a desk in front of a computer, wearing Beats by Dre headphones; Dee laughing in a McDonald’s parking lot, with the golden arches partially visible in the background; and Dee looking proud, leaning back against a brand new Hyundai Veloster. “These are all nice pictures.” Bill said. “But if it’s worth a hundred and fifty thousand, maybe it’s worth two hundred and fifty.”

Tasha gave her husband a stern look but didn’t say a word.

Alicia sighed. “I could go as high as a hundred eighty, but that’s the limit.” She said.

Tasha picked up the photo of Dee in the McDonalds parking lot. “I like this one.” She said. “You can see how innocent he is. You can see it in his eyes.”

.

Alicia’s work phone had been buzzing throughout the meeting, and she was glad to get out of there and into her rented black Dodge so she could see what was so important. Del had called five times in the last twenty minutes. She knew it wouldn’t be good news. “The Dee Henry story is losing market share.” He said. “Apparently a news anchor from The Today Show disappeared while reporting on hurricane Evan in Florida. It’s getting 27% across the board. It happened on-air, she just vanished off the beach, and the video of it has gone viral. The Pittsburgh story is down to 4%.”

“I just committed to paying the family $180,000! This is going to fuck up my commission. Who’s the anchor?”

“Serena Michaels.” Del said.

“At least it’s not someone with name recognition. Was she washed out to sea? Will her corpse come back or go out with the storm surge?”

“Who knows.” He said. “You should watch the video for yourself.”

“I thought there weren’t going to be any more organic viral videos.”

“This is pulled from live TV.” He said. “Besides, I’m not sure how ‘organic’ it really is.”

“Okay, get me the stress matrices for Pittsburgh, I’m going to stay here and try to salvage our investment. Keep me updated on the reporter.” Alicia ended the call. She wondered if a hundred and eighty thousand dollars was enough to buy a house in Pittsburgh. The row houses on Dee Henry’s street didn’t look like they were worth ten.

.

Her suite on the 27th floor of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh had a view of Point State Park. It was where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers met and formed the Ohio –a place of natural significance on the map. Alicia was looking out at the view as she called Charles Tahomi, the senior Human Resources agent in the area. She’d worked with him five years before on a regional expectation-lowering operation, along with HR agents in Cleveland, Columbus and Baltimore, and she remembered him as being competent in a non-assuming way. He told Alicia he didn’t want to do any work on cellphones. “We’ve got a scanner cadre monitoring communication in the area right now.” He said. “They’re good kids, but I don’t want them to think they know something they shouldn’t. That’s how people get ideas.”

Like most Industrial agents, his age was hard to pin down, he looked forty-five but that meant he was probably in his sixties. He came into her suite smiling at her like he knew she was in the weeds. “They could warn us, right? When they’re about to do something big?” He shook his head. “I don’t know how many times some Imposter business fucked up one of my projects. What do they care, right?”

“That’s why they’re anonymous.” Alicia said. “Because if we knew who they were, we might kill the fuckers. Come sit down. I’m shopping for ingredients.”

He sat down beside her and looked at the stress matrix she had highlighted on the screen of her Industry laptop. He knew immediately what she was trying to do.

Tahomi identified seven points of possible failure –all male. Four of the men were in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh’s east end. They were PCs, Potentially Caustic, subcategorized as Borderline, meaning they were likely to snap and do something violent. Borderline PCs almost always wound up incarcerated unless there was a person in their lives who could tamp down their worst impulses. The tamper was usually a wife, girlfriend, or close family member, so all Tahomi had to do was to make sure that the tampers were out of the way at the right moment.

Two of the tampers worked as nurses for the satanic soul-harvesting mega conglomerate UPMC, so their shifts were easily manipulated. One had a warrant for unpaid tickets, so she could just be arrested. The last was a Lyft driver, and could be lured away at any time necessary. “What’s your timeframe?” Tahomi asked.

“There’s a rally scheduled for tomorrow.” Alicia said.

“Yeah but this Serena Michaels thing could be a problem.” Tahomi said. “What if her body washes up? Can’t we get some kind of rough timeframe before we move forward?”

“You’re right.” Alicia said. She picked up her Industry phone and called a friend. “Herman, that was a nice gag you guys put on TV this morning. I saw David Copperfield do the same thing at the Pantages Theatre when I was a kid. A little advanced notice would’ve been nice though –you fucked up a play on my end.”

“That wasn’t us.” Herman said. “I’ve been trying to source the op all day and I’ve come up with jack shit.”

“Uh-huh. When you’re ready to have a real conversation call me back. I’m here in Pittsburgh.”

“You still capitalizing on police aggression? You people don’t even care about maintaining white supremacy do you? As long as there’s a commission to be had…”

“Yeah fuck you too. All I need is an ETA on the corpse.”

“I’m telling you, I know nothing about it.” Herman said. “I can’t give you anything.”

“Okay, okay, you know nothing,” Alicia said, “Thanks for that.” She ended the call and leaned back on the sofa. “I can usually tell when he’s lying.” She said to Tahomi.

“And?”

“I don’t know this time.” She said.

“What division is he?”

“Oblique Strategies.” She said. “There’s some overlap with the consumer conditioning programs, so he probably would’ve tipped his hand if they were behind it. I guess that just leaves the occult side.”

“That tells us something.” Tahomi said. “If it’s an occult op, she’ll probably stay gone forever. If it’s another nationally televised human sacrifice ritual, why create such a weird scenario? They wouldn’t go to all that trouble and then just have her body wash up on the beach. Experts would just explain it away –cause of death drowning, or lightning strike. A sad freak accident, but hardly supernatural.”

Alicia thought for a moment. “Let’s do it.” She said finally. “You make sure all the borderline cases are at that rally, I’ll make sure the exact wrong police officers are assigned to keep the peace.”

Tahomi smiled at her. “I’ve never started a riot before.” He said. “This’ll be fun.”

3

On the morning that the Today Show reporter disappeared, Smik was notified that two artists in overlapping surrogate familial pods had been together at a housewarming party in Barelas. Their phones had been in the same part of the living room for over an hour. The sound records were mostly muffled and incomprehensible due to background noise, but one thing was clear: the two men had met and had talked with each other.

It had only been a matter of time. Both men were homosexuals and both were dangerously unafraid of economic hardship. One was Herman Castillo, a 25 year old writer, and the other was Arthur Emanuel Noone, a 36 year old failed actor who ran a struggling theater group. Smik had specifically set up a flag to notify him if they ever met, because together they could pose a threat to his stress matrices. If they began working together, they could make people laugh at things that were supposed to cause fear, or see things that were supposed to be invisible –inconsistencies, hypocrisies, corruption. Most HR agents would’ve let it play out and dealt with the aftermath, but Smik didn’t like to react when it came to his social pods. He liked to be five moves ahead at all times.

He wasn’t about to let some brave new cultural work flourish under his watch. He’d seen HR agents lose control in as little as two months when musicians, writers, visual artists, or videogame designers came together. There was a multiplier effect when artists collaborated, so he kept them under close surveillance. New Mexico attracted them, and they couldn’t afford Taos or Santa Fe anymore, so they wound up in Albuquerque –in one of Smik’s social pods. He could usually keep them isolated, stressed out and demoralized, but lately some of his old tricks weren’t working.

He thought it had something to do with the rise of social media. It allowed them to cultivate support systems outside of his purview. While social media made it easier for him to stoke jealousy and bitterness, it also made it easier for them to vent and commiserate. In the old days, elevating someone whose work was clearly inferior was all it took, but now there was an online chorus there to point out the discrepancy. He’d even seen the targeted artist defend their artificially elevated inferiors.

He decided to try to severely shock the two overlapping social pods that contained Castillo and Noone. He wouldn’t act directly on them, but on a couple with strong connections in both groups. He figured a murder-suicide would cast a pall over anything they planned on doing together. Maybe Castillo and Noone would collaborate on a play, a film, or some kind of performance art piece, but if it was joyful, anarchic, or happily perverse, the shocking tragedy in their circle would make the whole thing ring false. It would alter their worldview enough to suck the joy out of the project and render it impotent of psychic energy.

Castillo and Noone were connected primarily through Mikey Klinger, age 34, a marketing associate at Yoniyum Craft Brewery. Klinger’s boyfriend was what HR agents like Smik called a barely-there, meaning his core identity shifted with whatever social context he found himself in. His name was Michael Loek, a 27 year old Hospitality Associate at the Beckin Hotel. Mikey and Michael had been a couple for nine and a half months. Michael’s shifting identity made him particularly attractive to a narcissist like Mikey, and it also made him a perfect candidate for Smik’s plans. He put in an order at the chem lab in Costa Mesa: Idilitrine, 25 MG –the Industrial brand name for Methylenedioxytetrafluoxeamphetimine. It had been synthesized to produce extravagant suicidal action, and usually drove the subject to take out as many people as possible on the way. In close quarters, it was a murder/suicide potion and its efficacy rate rose to 87% when there was a gun nearby. Smik checked the files but found that no one in their surrogate familial pod was a gun-owner. Fucking liberals, Smik thought.

He needed a stage where his two players would be in close proximity to the crucial prop –preferably something with a high likelihood of causing death, like a nine millimeter.

He immediately thought of George McCandless’s place up in Taos. George was Industry but on the Occult side, and far enough up the pyramid to have amassed a small fortune as an ‘influencer’ of very powerful people. How much his ‘influence’ had to do with his Industry connections versus his network of informers in the underground circuit was unclear. In any case, he was Smik’s closest connection to the gay community in Albuquerque.

“Smik, how’s your mother’s back doing? Have you called her lately?” He asked. George was the kind of person who remembered details like that, even though Smik had only met him twice in the last five years.

“Her back doesn’t bother her anymore.” Smik said. “In fact, all her troubles are over. And no, I haven’t called her in awhile.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” George said, sounding exactly like a sincere person. “When did it happen?”

“Last year.” Smik said.

“No matter what the relationship was like, all men go to pieces when their mother dies.”

“Hmm. Listen I might have a job for you George. Do you still have that place in Taos?”

“Yes.”

“There’s a gay couple that I’d like you to have up there as soon as possible. I don’t think you know them, but you know people who know them. See if you can get them up there for the weekend.”

“You want me to host?”

“No, they should be alone.” Smik said.

“That shouldn’t be a problem, what’s the gag?”

“I’ll arrange for there to be a handgun in the house, and I’d like you to specifically mention it to them. Tell them you’re having problems with raccoons or something. Just be sure they know it’s there.”

“This sounds like it could get messy.” He said. “I hope the pay-scale reflects the inconvenience of having bloodshed in my vacation home.”

“It will.” Smik said.

“Then it’s no problem on my end, just send the information to me.” George said. “Did you hear the one about the local girl who was abducted by aliens on live TV?”

“Was she a local girl?” Smik asked.

“You’re the HR agent, don’t you know? She was raised by those earth-mother dikes out in Marbella. Her real name is Mann.”

“Sarah Mann? Daughter of Minnie Corvelli?”

“That’s her.” George said. “She’s a product of the Kibele Academy. You remember her?”

“Sure.” Smik said. “But she never went through the Academy schools. I think she went back east for college and never came home. In spite of who her mother is, she’s not even a Kibelian.”

“Well what do you make of it boychick? Was it a consumer conditioning gag? The Obliques?”

“Could be, but I was thinking it originated from your side. Aren’t you guys always talking about bringing awe and wonder back to the world?”

“Nobody I know will give me so much as a wink on this thing.” George said. “You think she’ll turn up? Or is she working her way through the intestines of a reef shark right now?”

“She’ll turn up.” Smik said. “You gotta figure a gag like this is going to have a beginning, middle and end.”

4

No one died, but the rioters did over twenty million dollars in damage. They burned down an apartment building that was under construction, a Family Dollar, and an auto-body shop. They also did severe damage to three police cars which had been left unattended in the middle of the crowd for just that purpose. The auto-body shop seemed suspicious to Alicia, and she figured the owners were using the riots as an excuse to cash in an insurance policy. The pretty pictures of angry youths torching police cars sent the Pittsburgh story’s market share up, and the picture of Dee Henry in the McDonald’s parking lot was thoroughly tattooed on the consciousness of every television consumer in America.

Alicia’s commission was safe.

She lounged on the sofa in her suite, sipped a vodka on ice, and looked at news stories about the Pittsburgh riots on her phone. The sun was going down and she was starting to feel restless. She knew she would have to find a distraction for the evening. She got onto her Industry laptop, opened the HR files for Allegheny County, and went to the carnal appetites database. She filtered out women, married men, gay men, submissive men, and those over sixty and under thirty. She was left with 14,378 names. She filtered out those who did not have a Tinder account and was left with 1,268 men. She filtered out men over 200 lbs. and under 165 lbs. and then she filtered out all Caucasians, and people who were in any way religious. She was left with 141 men, mostly black. She pulled up drivers license photos and scrolled through, eliminating men based on their eyes. She was left with 12. From there, she pulled up pornography search histories, and started eliminating men who had recently searched for anything incest related, involving piss or shit, or anything to do with ‘teens.’

That left four men.

One of the men was working a late shift, so she texted each of the three remaining men: Hey remember me? We met last month at that thing.

Then she sent a selfie, flirty but not blatant, and the message: I was wondering if you’d want to meet me downtown for a drink?

Right away she got back a text from a man named Lon: What thing??? I don’t remember meeting you.

Alicia groaned. She sipped her drink and waited. Lon texted again: I really think I’d remember you. Was it at Blush?

Alicia searched ‘Blush Pittsburgh’ and, as suspected, it was a strip club. She blocked Lon’s number. Right as she was setting her phone down, it buzzed again with a new message. It was from a guy named Tim asking where and when she wanted to meet.

Alicia texted back that she had a room at the Hilton, so they could meet at the bar downstairs. He agreed.

Alicia finished her drink and went to the bathroom to fix herself up. She wondered if Tim would want to spend the night. She hoped not.

.

At around four in the morning, Alicia woke to an empty bed. She reached  down for the heavier blanket, cold from the air conditioning, and noticed that Tim’s pants were still on the floor. She sat up and looked around the room but didn’t see him. He must be in the bathroom, she thought, but he wasn’t making a sound in there. She got out of bed and pulled on underwear and a t-shirt.

She knocked on the bathroom door but there was no answer. When she opened it, she found him sitting on the closed toilet in his boxer shorts, slumped over with his head almost to his knees. She immediately recognized the position as an opioid slumber. She put her hand on his shoulder but he didn’t move. She shook him softly, then a bit harder. “Hey Tim,” she said, “time to wake up.”

“Huh?” He opened his eyes and looked at her.

“Yeah.” She said. “Time to go. I don’t like dope in my room.”

“I just snorted a little.” He said. “I wasn’t shooting it. It was stronger than I thought.”

“Get your pants on, it’s time for you to get going.”

“Can’t I crash here?”

“No.” Alicia said. She pulled him to his feet and gave him a slight shove toward the bathroom door.

“What the fuck!” He said. He went out and found his pants on the floor by the bed. Alicia stood by the open bathroom door and watched him tie his shoelaces. “You’re an ice cold bitch, turning me out in the middle of the night like this.”

“You’re a big boy, you’ll be able to find your way home.” She said.

He grumbled some more and left without saying goodbye. Alicia went back into the bathroom and pulled a ripped stamp bag from the waste basket. There was a blue stamp of Colonel Sanders on the little brown envelope. She smiled. She’d been there at the beginning of the campaign. Her mentor Talia, one of the only other women in the Asymmetrical Marketing division, had cooked up the scheme back in the late eighties, branding sheets of acid with the logos of luxury goods, a hundred little advertisements that could take the lid off your brain and let the world pour in whether you were ready for it or not. It went from there to other brand names and other substances. The significance of a brand or a logo was brittle and thin, and anytime it was connected with something real and functional, like a bag of heroin or a hit of acid, it imbued that brand forever with some mythic power in the user’s subconscious. Alicia had brought up the sales of the Mitsubishi Motors Corporation by 12% among users of ecstasy back in the mid-nineties. She wondered which agent was behind the stamp bag campaign, or if it was just copycats.

She dropped it in the toilet and flushed. Before she got back in bed, she saw a text from Del: Watch the news tomorrow at noon.

What now, she thought, as she pulled the heavier blankets up over her. She let herself fall into a deep sleep.

.

She got back from her trip to Starbucks carrying a venti soy latte at 11:53 AM. She turned the TV on and sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through the channels until she came to CNN. She smiled when she saw that they were still talking about Dee Henry and the Pittsburgh riots. She drank her coffee and watched as 12:00 came and went. She was about to call Del and find out what he’d wanted her to see when they came back from commercial with a fresh chyron that read: Missing Reporter Found Alive in Florida. Alicia put it on mute and called Del. “Am I being brought in on this Serena Michaels op?” She asked.

“I believe so.” He said. “I’m supposed to ask you if you’re familiar with the Kibele Academy.”

“I know a little.” She said. “I thought they’d pretty much become irrelevant after they got all that bad press back in the eighties.”

Alicia sipped her coffee and watched the talking heads silently move their mouths as Del answered. “Nah, they’re still pretty influential.” He said. “It slowed their growth a bit, but the core group remained intact. It’s a secret society that actually maintains some semblance of secrecy.”

“Yeah, I knew there were still members around, especially out west. What does that have to do with the Michaels op?”

“She has family ties to the Kibelians.” Del said. The text underneath the CNN anchor conveyed the scant facts available: Woman positively identified as Serena Michaels in Bradenton Fla Hospital, and, Michaels disoriented and reportedly suffering memory loss.

“It’s wonderful, really, and I’m sure the consumers are riveted, but I don’t see how the situation could be useful to us. No one is identifying with Serena Michaels. That’s why they’re interested. Her experience is unlike anything anyone has ever been through. It’s not going to sell fast food.”

“You’re not using her to sell a product,” Del said, “she’s the product. You have to sell her.”

“Why?”

“That’s a good question, but you’d have to know some pretty elaborate handshakes to get the answer.” Del said.

“Okay then…” Alicia said. “But Jesus, why didn’t they bring me in from the beginning? I could’ve designed the thing from the ground up. Here I am, coming in in the middle of act two trying to twist the situation to god-knows what end. It feels like I’m on cleanup duty.”

“Be that as it may, you’re supposed to fly to Albuquerque.”

“Albuquerque?”

“That’s where they’re sending her after she leaves the hospital.” He said. “She has family out there. You’ll be working with the HR agent for the area.”

“Okay, send me the contact information.” She said.

“I will.” He said. “And I’ll also send you our Kibele files. I suggest you do some research on the plane. It should be a solid four-hour flight.”

When she ended the call and took the TV off mute, there was a press conference going on. A doctor, identified on screen as Dr. Maria Rago, was finishing her statement which seemed to be that Serena Michaels was healthy, all things considered. She introduced a man named Robert Carrick, who was some kind of representative from NBC News. He looked like middle management and was clearly nervous in front of the cameras. “I’ve just come from Serena’s room.” He said. “She’s in good spirits and seems to be doing just fine. She asked me to read this statement on her behalf for the press.” He took a pair of reading glasses out of his pocket and put them on. He looked down at a piece of paper and read:

“I would like to thank all the people who expressed their concern for me over the past three days, and for all those who said that they prayed for me. I understand that the things that I said on-air and my subsequent disappearance caused a lot of worry, and for that I’m sorry. I want to assure everyone listening that, aside from fatigue, I feel fine both mentally and physically. Our current best-guess as to what happened to me is that I was struck by lightning which triggered a fugue state. In that fugue state, I must’ve somehow made it as far as Bradenton. If anyone listening has any information regarding my whereabouts over the past three days, please contact the authorities here at Bradenton Memorial Hospital.

“I humbly ask that my privacy be respected as I recover from this traumatic experience. At some point in the future, I’ll be able to speak personally about what happened, but right now, I need to focus on getting better.”

Alicia turned off the TV and texted Del: I know it’s a promotion, but I still feel like I’m cleaning up a mess.

5

Smik was tired of waiting for Serena Michaels’ mother to call. His new alter-persona as entertainment lawyer Jeffery Chancellor came with an uncomfortable wardrobe –an Armani suit. It also came with a secretary and office at Schylar, Barnski & Reynolds. But the comfort of the expensive leather office furniture was poor compensation for the time he was wasting. He should’ve been heading off an insurgency, that was his primary job, not infiltrating a coven of crystal-hippie ya-yas on the whim of some Imposter.

The law firm was a highly compromised Industry asset. Harlen Barnski Jr. had been busted with a ten year old prostitute in Thailand back in the early 2000s, but he was a lawyer and came from a prosperous local family, so Smik had freed him. His crime had made him a perfect candidate to move up the socioeconomic ladder. In the years since his peccadillo, Smik made sure that the right accounts fell into his lap. He soon started his own firm with a wealthy octogenarian estate lawyer named Robert Schylar, and a severely crooked defense lawyer named Samuel K. Reynolds. Their outfit was worth a quarter of a billion dollars, and it could be brought down in an hour if the Industry leaked just one or two video clips.

It was the same principal that brought people to prominence in all areas of commerce and culture. They wouldn’t raise someone up unless they could be brought down immediately. That’s why, when Smik’s nephew moved to Los Angeles to be an actor, Smik had advised him to do something reprehensible. “Kill someone or let a dog fuck you,” he’d told the confused young man, “they’re not going to allow a decent human being to become a movie star. You don’t get that kind of power for nothing. They only let you have it if they can control you.”

“Yeah, but in that case, you don’t really have any power.”

“Right.” Smik said. “But do you really want power? Or do you just want people to treat you like you’re special and give you lots of money?”

“I’d like both.”

“Listen, I know people out there. I have connections. Whatever your darkest sexual impulse is, find a way to do it. Rape someone. Show a Girl Scout your cock. If it’s captured on video even better. Afterwards, I guarantee that opportunities will start to open up.”

“I don’t want it that way.” He’d said.

“There isn’t any other way.” Smik said. But his nephew had continued doing auditions and having socially acceptable intercourse with his attractive, age-appropriate girlfriend. He’d wound up working in an office, selling supplemental insurance to senior citizens. Smik wondered if he ever thought about their conversation and regretted his decision.

He picked up the phone and dialed George McCandless. “Did you find Mikey and Michael?”

“Yes I was going to call you.” George said. “They’re a lovely couple. I was very pleased to offer my place for the weekend, and they were very pleased to accept. It’s all set.”

“That was fast.” Smik said. “Did you mention the gun?”

“No, it didn’t seem right.” He said. “But I did mention raccoons, and I’ll leave a note that mentions the gun. I’ll tell them to not be alarmed it’s only to scare off the wildlife.”

“Good.” Smik said. “Do you think they’ll eat out?”

“Yes, I sold them on a place called Rathbone’s. It’s the most popular restaurant up there at the moment so it should be nice and crowded.”

“Thanks.” Smik said.

“By the way, I finally found out something about our lightning-struck local girl who claimed to be receiving demonic messages on live TV.”

“Oh?”

“I was told that someone from your division is working it at a very high level.”

“I’m not on the op.” Smik said. “I’m just playing some kind of supporting role. ‘geographic happenstance’ was what my handler called it.”

“No, not you.” George said. “Ben Scanlon.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“I never kiss and tell.” George said.

“Huh… Thanks.” Smik said. “I owe you one.”

“No you don’t.” George said. “You just gave me one. You.”

.

Ben Scanlon was an Exotic Asset agent who worked out of the national HR office in Detroit. He had a home in Santa Fe, not far from George’s, and was known to run in elite circles when he was in town. He told people he was an art dealer, and his mansion sold the facade –it was so full of contemporary art that it could be mistaken for a museum. He was on various arts-related boards and committees up in Taos, and he hosted fundraisers and parties, mixing rich arts patrons with various local characters. Smik had been to one of his fundraisers, and it had taken him awhile to realize that he was in a human zoo. Scanlon had brought in exotic assets and they were mingling with the guests. Everyone just thought Scanlon ran with a strange crowd and knew a lot of oddball artists and street-people. His wealthy friends weren’t used to attending parties that lively. They’d been delighted of course.

Why would an Exotic Asset agent be involved in the Michaels op? Smik was supposed to get in close to the family, but nobody had bothered telling him why yet. He looked over Jeffery Chancellor’s fictitious biography: literary and film contracts, television deals, managing the legal fallout from high-profile sex scandals, negotiating interviews for celebrity social-pariahs… Basically making sure the person everyone wanted to gawk at got some money for being the gawkee.

Smik hit the intercom. “I’m going out.” He said to his borrowed secretary. “If someone calls, text me.”

“Ok Mr. Chancellor.”

.

Smik went to his real office, which was in a strip-mall behind a Big O Tires. The sign above the door said Human Resource Solutions, a fake company, with the name of his division right in it. Plain sight was the best place to hide, besides, Human Resources was a category of business that didn’t get a lot of walk-in traffic. He opened Eakins’ door without knocking. “Is Ben Scanlon working the Michaels op?”

Eakins calmly put his tea down and looked up from his computer. “Ben Scanlon?”

“Yeah. I heard he’s coming in on this thing, and I just like to know who my partners are.”

“It’s news to me.” Eakins said.

“Those Exotic Assets guys are divas. Whatever he’s doing, I guarantee I could do the same thing better, cheaper, and without drama. On any given day, I’m up to my eyeballs in the minutia of hundreds of personalities, tracking evolutions, game planning different scenarios, trying to keep lids on all the bubbling anger, dread, and resentment that this fucked up culture seems to breed in people –and what happens when they need something important done? They bring in an overpaid golden child who hasn’t even looked at a stress matrix in fifteen years!”

“I’ll get on the phone with the Imposters and let them know how upset you are about it.” Eakins said, deadpan. “Who told you Ben Scanlon was on the op?”

“Is he?”

“I don’t know.” Eakins said. “But when I told you you’d be working with a partner, he wasn’t who I had in mind.”

“Who did you have in mind?”

“They’re sending someone over from Asymmetrical Marketing. She carries a lunch-pail just like you.”

“Good.” He said

“I never realized how class-conscious you’d become. Another rant like that and you’ll be classified as Potentially Caustic.”

“If you want to see me go full-fledged psychotic, just put me on an op under a guy like Ben Scanlon.”



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