A Different World by Jon Wesick
A Different World by Jon Wesick
Joseph Hart was fourteen when Stubing’s goons killed his father. Even as a teen he knew the police wouldn’t do anything. GenCorp’s massive campaign contributions dwarfed any concern the governor might have about the death of an obscure lawyer investigating worker deaths at Stubing’s Columbus factory. Forget about the FBI. With the delicate balance in Congress between Republicans and Tea Baggers, President Anderson couldn’t be seen meddling in state’s business.
His mother was never the same. She came down with breast cancer a year after her husband’s death. Even if she’d had enough money to pay for treatment, she couldn’t have summoned the will to live. Joe spent his high school years with a foster family of Bible thumpers. On his eighteenth birthday they told him he had to leave A few days later he received a draft notice from the Ohio National Guard. The prospect of spending two years shooting at labor organizers and then going on to work thirteen-hour shifts for subsistence wages in one of Stubing’s factories didn’t appeal to him. Neither did the thought of joining one of the Marxist guerillas in Indiana. With such a dismal future in America he made the only logical choice. He stowed away on a container ship bound for the land of opportunity.
“Un café s’il te plait.” Joe nodded to the bartender at Le Chat Bleu and took a seat at a table by the window so he could watch the Parisians stroll the boulevards of the tenth Arrondissement.
He would have felt more comfortable in the American ghetto with its signs in English and plentiful barbecue joints but the risk of getting picked up by immigration was too great there. Joe kept his distance and tried to blend in. He learned to handle a fork with his left hand, always wore slacks and dress shoes never jeans, and kept his mouth shut lest his accent give him away.
A brunette with a kind face drew his attention. The perversity of women’s fashion never ceased to amaze him. This year’s fad was for chameleon skinsuits to resemble twentieth-century wool coats. Joe had hardly depressed the plunger on the coffee press when Farad motioned to him from the back.
“Ah Joe, if we could have a word please.” Farad led him into an office that was surprisingly bright for a nightclub.
Joe took a seat and set his cup on the uncluttered synwood desk while Farad put a sheet of computer paper in the drawer. As usual Farad’s parrot, Yasmine, was perched on a wooden dowel with a scattered of sunflower seed shells at its base.
“So, would you be able to work security on a little job in Marseille?” Farad leaned back in his chair. With his dark skin, hawk nose, and wavy, black hair he still resembled the Algerian ancestors who came to France nearly a hundred years earlier.
“What am I protecting?”
“You don’t really need to know. Just make sure the containers get to the transport without difficulty.”
The phone rang and Farad answered.
“Allo.” When there was no reply, he looked at the parrot. “Yasmine, you are a naughty girl.”
“I do need to know what I’m transporting,” Joe said.
“As you like. I can offer the job to someone else.”
“All right.” Joe didn’t have much choice.
“Good! You’ll have to leave tonight.” Farad handed Joe a slip of paper. “Call this number when you arrive. Any questions?”
Joe shook his head. Farad handed him three hundred-euro notes.
“For expenses. Marcel will pay you the balance of the two thousand once the job is complete.”
After a two-hour train ride Joe called the number from the Marseille station. A woman answered.
“Darling, I missed you. Meet me at Le Gigot. I’m sending directions.”
Following the electronic voice on his cell phone Joe found the bus platform, took the Number 19 to the Rue d’Aux, and walked a few blocks to the Gigot. The waiter had barely set down Joe’s glass of wine when a woman in a feathered hat and skimpy skinsuit put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him on the mouth.
“Let’s get out of here.” She placed a few euros on the table. “I have other plans for you, tonight.”
Pressing her body to his she led him out of the café and to the door of a two-story walkup a few blocks away. Once inside Joe was disappointed but not surprised to discover a short man in gray overalls sitting on the couch.
“Cell phone.” The man held out his hand and attached an autodialer once Joe gave it over. “In case of surveillance it will look like you spent the night with an old lover. I’m Marcel by the way.” The man didn’t shake hands. Instead he lifted a coil of climbing rope from off the carpet. “Let’s go.”
He attached the robe to a carabiner on the wall and rappelled out the window to an alley below. Joe followed him down and took a seat in the blue Renault parked nearby. After a half-hour drive they arrived at a concrete building in an industrial park. Security was not obvious but Joe spotted a guard with an acoustic disrupter in the shadows as they approached the entrance. No doubt there were others with more deadly arms.
Marcel looked into the retinal scanner and the door opened. They passed through an empty suite of work cubicles and entered a garage where two panel vans, three motorcycles, and ten men waited.
“You ride a motorcycle?” Marcel asked.
“Boots and jackets over there.” Marcel tossed him a helmet. “You, Jacques, and Philip will ride escort on the package. Jean, Francois, and I will take the control van. Allons.”
Joe would have preferred black leather to the jackets’ horrid white fabric but he changed his mind when he noticed the fine wires embedded in the cloth to dissipate heat from a laser strike.
“Hey!” he called to Marcel. “I’m not going out there unarmed.”
“Of course.” Marcel opened a trunk of weapons.
Joe took a Sanyo laser pistol along with several chemical charges and stowed them in his jacket pocket. As the aluminum garage door clanged open, Joe mounted the motorcycle and keyed the ignition. The fuel cell gulped hydrogen generating electric power and waste heat that warmed the Joe’s calves. He and the other cyclists followed the cargo van into the Mediterranean night while Marcel and the control vehicle took another route.
“Communication check,” Joe heard Marcel call in his helmet’s radio. “Can everyone hear me?”
The two French cyclists pulled in front of the van while Joe took up the rear occasionally swerving to get a peak at the road ahead. The air smelled of fish. Even if he’d known the city, their path would make little sense to him with its multiple turns and reversals of direction. Periodically Marcel’s voice would come over the radio.
“Package okay. Proceeding on route grey according to plan.”
“Anything suspicious, surveillance?”
“Police cameras negative.”
“Where’s the air cover?”
“Remote-controlled vehicle orbiting the package at 100 meters. Now outbound to check some men on a roof.”
For twenty minutes nothing happened. They kept to narrow roads. The scenery was a monotony of empty sidewalks, graffiti-covered yellow buildings lit by LED streetlights, and barred shop windows. It was beginning to look like Joe would earn an easy two thousand euros when a report came over the radio.
“Police car half a kilometer ahead.”
“Can we avoid it?”
“Negative, they’ve seen us.”
“Okay, Jacques, Philip, ride ahead and check it out. Joe, fall back.”
Joe throttled back putting distance between his bike and the rear bumper of the van so he could scan surrounding buildings without worrying about colliding. He didn’t see anything obvious but how could he really tell? Anyone could be hiding behind the doors. For that matter the gray trash bin to his left was large enough to conceal a remote-controlled explosive.
“He’s just parked by the side of the road,” Jacques radioed. “We’re going to pass and circle the block.”
As someone yelled, “He’s not a cop!” Joe’s bike jerked to a stop. He flew over the handlebars and came down on the pavement feeling a hard shock on his shoulder. There was a crash of metal on metal and more shouting on the radio. An explosion shook the ground. Joe gasped with effort trying to inhale but his lungs didn’t obey.
“Package, can you respond?” Marcel yelled. “Where the hells’ the air cover?”
“Incoming. Thirty second ETA.”
“That’s too long. Motorcycles, get your asses over there and report!”
Wincing when he jarred his stiffening arm, Joe rolled onto his stomach. He had to get out of there. He raised to a crouch and ran to the nearest doorway. From the shelter he looked back at his wrecked motorcycle. The front wheel had been mangled probably from a laser hit, which meant he was in trouble. The weapon was silent and unlike in the movies, its beam could not be seen. The shooter could be anywhere.
“Jacques here. They rammed the van and stole the package. Philip and I …”
“Jacques’ down! I’m taking cover.”
“Surveillance, get me police cameras.”
“Air cover has eyes on the bandits. Police car and an ambulance fleeing the scene. I have one missile. What do you want me to do?”
“Don’t damage the package.”
“Roger that. Acquiring police car. Missile away.” The sound of a distant explosion came from the radio. “Scratch one bandit.”
Praying that the shooter had left with the other Joe ran to the scene. The van was wrapped in a crumpled V around a semi truck’s bumper. Its paint sizzled and bubbled in the blue, hydrogen flame from its fuel cell. The air smelled of Semtex.
Footsteps crunching on broken glass Joe dashed to the downed motorcycle and touched his fingers to the rider’s neck. There was no pulse. Favoring his hurt arm Joe righted the bike and set off in pursuit.
“Joe here. They shot my bike out from under me but I’m back. Don’t have visual contract. Where are they?”
“Turn left at the next street,” said Francois who monitored police cameras from the control van.
Joe leaned into the turn. Once he cleared the intersection, he spotted the other motorcycle and a remote-controlled airplane the size of an albatross tailing the ambulance, its red lights flashing. Joe gunned the throttle. The electric motor whined and wind whistled through his helmet.
“Nice of you to join us,” Philip said over the radio.
“I would have been here sooner but you know how traffic is this time of night.”
The ambulance’s back door opened and a man sighted on Joe with a laser. Joe swerved and regained control a fraction of a second before he would have jumped the curve. Philip propped a laser pistol propped on his handlebars and fired at the ambulance. The shots went wide but they kept the bandit from firing back.
The plane pulled beside the ambulance and banked so its camera could get a view at the men in the cab. Distracted by the maneuver, the pilot flew the plane into a street sign. It shattered on the hard steel and its lithium battery burst into white flame.
The ambulance took a hard left squealing its tires and tilting on its suspension. The motorcycles followed. Philip dodged a stretcher thrown out the back and lost his pistol. The ambulance blasted its siren as it ran a red light.
“Are we clear?” Joe asked.
“Affirmative,” Francois said.
As Philip entered the intersection a box truck plowed into his side sending him and the remains of his motorcycle into the other lane. Joe set his bike down. It slid raising sparks from the pavement until it stopped centimeters from the truck. Remarkably, Joe was not hurt any further.
“I thought you said the way ahead was clear!” he screamed into the radio while struggling to his feet.
“Francois has been relieved of his duties,” Marcel answered in a sober voice. “Return to the garage.”
“Return to the garage.”
Bent over Philip’s body the truck driver didn’t notice until Joe began to drive a way.
“Hey! Hey!” He ran a few steps after Joe before giving up the chase with a shake of his fist.
Marcel was waiting with several armed guards when he got back.
“What about the package?” Joe asked.
“There never was a package. It was just a ruse to find the spy in our ranks.” Marcel handed Joe an envelope. “Your fee.”
Joe counted the money. “There’s only a thousand here. I was supposed to get two.”
“Then take your complaint to the labor board.” Marcel motioned to one of the guards. “Drive him back to Solange’s place.”
Marcel didn’t ask for the pistol back. Joe didn’t offer to return it.
By the time Joe got back to Paris his neck had stiffened and the pain in his shoulder had had gotten worse. He found a drugstore and fed a hundred euros into an Easy Scan. After answering several questions on the touch screen, he entered the tiny changing room, emptied the metal from his pockets, and lay on the gantry.
“Please lie still,” said a computer voice as the motor moved the gantry inside a white donut that contained the superconducting magnet.
The machine-made metallic clicks for ten minutes before the gantry moved out and the computer spoke again.
“Easy Scan has found no fractures of ligament damage. Physicians typically treat patients with your diagnosis with over-the-counter pain relievers. Information provided by Easy Scan is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. If you’re in need of medical care, see your physician. Thank you for using Easy Scan.”
When Joe got home to the one room-apartment he rented in Clichy Sous Bois, he counted his wages. The total came to eight hundred euros after expenses barely enough to cover a month’s rent. Of course, he still had the pistol. Selling it might bring him another three hundred. He hid it under his socks in the scuffed synwood dresser and warmed a packet of halal lentils and rice he’d bought in bulk at a Middle Eastern market. After eating he threw the carton in the trash with the others. He was too tired to walk down the hall to the shower room so he turned on the television to drown out the sounds of the African prostitute servicing her clients next door.
He didn’t sleep well. He wasn’t used to sleeping on his right side and every time he rolled over, the pain in his shoulder jolted him awake. Around 8:00 he decided he’d had enough and got up. After a breakfast of instant coffee and lentils, he showered and left with the pistol to see if he could find a buyer.
On the way down the stairs Joe ran his hand along the wrought-iron railing before exiting the front door. He didn’t walk toward the Metro that would take him to Le Chat Bleu. Even though Farad would buy the pistol, Joe didn’t want to cause any friction between him and Marcel. Maybe he would try Chiwetel or the Turk. He was so preoccupied to his the Arabic graffiti and women in colorful Nigerian gowns in his surroundings. He didn’t notice the football-shaped Citroen following a few paces behind until two men in leather jackets grabbed him, spun him around, and slammed his face onto its roof. One of the men snatched the pistol out of Joe’s pocket.
“Monsieur, don’t you know that these are illegal?”
They hustling him into the car. After a short ride Joe found himself shackled to a metal table in a white interrogation room. He sat there for over an hour with nothing but worry, the ache in his shoulder, and the need to use a bathroom for company. During that time he became quite familiar with the turtle-shaped rust spot on the ceiling and the diamond pattern in the wire reinforcing the window in the door. When that door finally opened, a bald man and a uniformed policeman entered.
“Remove the handcuffs and leave us alone.”
After the policeman complied, the bald man paced back and forth. From the cheap, gray suit that matched the color of his eyes he would have stood out as a government employee anywhere. The jacket fit awkwardly over his large belly. After a time the bald man sat down and made a steeple with his fingers.
“Draft dodging, illegal immigration, associating with known criminals, and possession of a firearm. What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Hart?” He held up an hand palm out. “Never mind. Neither of us has the time or energy for phony excuses. Let me ask you this. Would you say that our country has given you a decent home?”
“It’s been all right.”
“Then you must repay France for all it’s done for you. I have a proposition. If you complete a little assignment for us, we’ll forget about the gun possession change and maybe even help you get legal residency.”
“Who are you?”
“You may call me Jean Paul. I work for the government.”
“Let’s just say that I belong to an organization that protects my nation’s interests.”
Joe rolled up his sleeve to let the nurse wrap the cuff around his arm. This spying was easier than he’d thought. As one of ten subjects in the Rourutavin drug test, all he had to do was take pills, put up with occasional physical exams, perform a minimum amount of exercise, and find ways to entertain himself during the twenty-two free hours he had each day. Of course, there was that vial of liquid hidden in the heel of his shoe but wasn’t supposed to take that for another twelve days. The nurse let the pressure out of the cuff and noted Joe’s blood pressure in his chart.
“This will stick a bit.” Through her grammar was flawless, the nurse’s voice still danced to the cadence on her Indian accent.
She swabbed his finger with alcohol, pricked it with a lancet, and drew some blood into a capillary tube.
“That’s all for now.”
Joe got down from the exam table and headed for the video room. If no one was using it, he might be able to watch the next season of “Cyber Cop” on the big screen. He turned a corner and felt the sting of a rubber glove on his cheek.
“Sir Joseph of Ohio, in keeping with the laws of chivalry I, Harold of Brisbane, do hereby challenge you to a test of manhood,” said a man hairless except for an Amish-looking beard. “The winner shall claim the hand of the fair Stephanie. We meet at the field on honor when the cock crows quarter past one.”
Joe looked at the clock. He had barely enough time to visit the men’s room. Typical of Harold Trilbey! But then what else would he expect from the author of novels such as Bed Time for Bormann, The Diarrhea Apocalypse, and Lobster Sluts from Rigel 5?
All the subjects were lining the hall outside the cafeteria but Joe’s eyes strayed instantly to Stephanie in her tight leopard-print pants and black, X-backed T-shirt that showed off her large breasts and broad shoulders. She was a tall woman who must have been an athlete at some point. Joe guessed she’d been on a rowing team. At the clinic her hair was always pulled back from her oval face except for a rebellious strand that twisted like a corkscrew as it fell in front of her dark eyebrows. The thin scar on her lip made her appear constantly amused but when she smiled for real, she showed teeth in a tentative grin as if wondering whether she could ever be truly happy.
“Your weapon and steed, My Lord.” Joshua, a wiry Ethiopian backpacker, handed him a lance made from cardboard tubing and gestured to an electric wheelchair.
“One moment, squire.” Joe approached Stephanie and dropped to one knee. “Lady Stephanie, though I’m about to face mortal combat, my heart is at ease. For even if I fall, doing so in your is all I could ever hope for. All I ask of you is a token that I may carry into battle.”
“I’ve got just the thing.” Her voice carried an American accent, maybe west coast. She ran off and returned with a condom.
“I shall carry it bravely.” Joe removed the foil and slipped the condom over the end of his “lance.”
“Knights, mount your steeds,” said Ivan, a blonde Russian wearing a sleeveless T-shirt.
Joe and Harold sat in the wheelchairs and took their weapons from their squires.
“Are the knights ready?”
“Then let the joust begin on a signal from Lady Stephanie.”
Trumpeters blew a martial-sounding tune through the plastic cones used to mark wet floors. Stephanie dropped a paper towel. Joshua and Harold’s squire began to push the wheelchairs toward one another. Joe hunkered down behind the cafeteria tray that served as his shield and aimed his cardboard lance at Harold’s exposed shoulder. By using the entire length of the hallway as a head start, both wheelchairs got up to running speed. Even though both lances buckled on contact, the spectators didn’t go away disappointed. Not content to have Joe and Harold pass each other, the squires changed directions at the last-minute slamming the wheelchairs into each other and sending both knights sprawling on the linoleum.
“It seems we have a tie,” Ivan said. “Lady Stephanie must choose her champion.”
“I choose Joe.”
“Then let us retire to the banquet hall to feast on mead and venison.” Ivan gestured for Stephanie and Joe to lead the gathering into the cafeteria where the staff ladled out lentils, curried lamb, and rice.
Stephanie and Joe sat with Ivan in the place of honor while the others picked at their chapattis and rice at other tables.
“Minstrels!” Ivan clapped his hands. “A song to celebrate Sir Joseph’s great victory!”
A handful of subjects began playing synthesized lutes on their cell phones. An Irishman named David began singing in a rich, tenor voice.
“In the land they cook lamb vindaloo
where tech draw our blood and take our poo,
there arose a knight with cardboard lance.”
“Who strove to get in his lady’s pants!” yelled Stephanie.
“His rival was a mighty sheik,” David continued,
“known to all as a bookish freak.
So, in the hallway they did brawl
to the sound of rubber trumpet calls.
His staff it seems was poorly built.
In combat hot it seemed to wilt.”
“Don’t worry.” Stephanie touched Joe’s shoulder. “It happens to lots of guys.”
“So ends this tale of the knight from France
who lost because of a floppy lance.”
“Come on, babe.” Stephanie took Joe’s hand. “I have just the thing to stiffen your resolve.” She led him from the room to the hoots and cheers of the others.
Joe couldn’t believe his luck. Walking down the hall with Stephanie he kept quiet for fear anything he said would ruin his chances. Instead he savored the warmth of her hand and the occasional brush of her leg against his. Anticipating the solid reality of her naked breasts and belly he became more aroused the closer to her room they got. Would her nipples be dark or pink? How about her bush? He could hardly breathe by the time she let him in but instead of taking him to her bed, she stepped toward a pile of equipment on her desk.
“Here!” She handed him a set of virtual reality gear. “Put these on.”
Joe looked at the silver helmet and black gloves covered in wire. Somehow, he doubted she wanted a sex partner for “Roman Orgy II.” Hurrying so she wouldn’t see the disappointment on his face he put the helmet on.
Joe found himself floating in a world of clouds. An orange column of swirling gas to his right rose from a blanket of cumulus below and extended up as far as he could see.
“Come on!” Stephanie’s voice came from a creature that looked like a cross between a squid and the Graf Zeppelin.
By ducking and paddling with his hands Joe was able to follow her as she dived. He felt the sensation of falling.
“Pretty cool, huh? The Brazilians developed it. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation tickles your brain so you sense motion. Only problem is it can’t last more than ten minutes because of the liquid nitrogen cooling.” She pulled out of the dive into a steep climb.
They didn’t have anything like this back in Ohio! G- forces tugged at Joe’s body as he rocketed into a cloud bank after her. The light dimmed to wispy gray and his skin tingled with the chill. After a buffeting from turbulence he burst into blue sky and caught sight of Stephanie entering the funnel cloud from above.
When he dived into the vortex after her, he found a rainbow of swirling colors inside. He descended spinning faster and faster. The colors became streaks as he accelerated to unbelievable speed. Then he shot out of the tube into outer space where he floated among the stars with a gas giant planet like Jupiter in the background.
“Whoa!” Joe took off his helmet and waited for Stephanie’s room to stop spinning.
“Pretty great, huh?” She put his helmet and gloves away. “Listen,” she touched his shoulder. “I’ve got to do some work on my screenplay. See you, tomorrow?”
Erotic fantasies kept Joe up late so he woke with only fifteen minutes before the staff stopped serving breakfast. He threw on his clothes and rushed to the cafeteria where he spotted Stephanie sitting with two other women. He approached while trying to decide whether to open with, “Have you tried the flying squid?” or “Mind if I sit here? The orange tornado in the corner is making too much noise.” When he got close Stephanie began to tremble.
“Steph, are you okay?” one of the women asked.
Stephanie cried out and toppled off her seat.
“Get a nurse!”
Violent tremors wracked Stephanie’s body. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she voided her bladder staining her pants dark with urine. Joe stared. Was he supposed to put a pencil in her mouth or something?
“Out of the way!” Rough hands brushed him aside.
Two nurses knelt by Stephanie’s side trying to hold her still white the doctor prepared an injection.
Like the others Joe wore a thick, silk robe decorated with auspicious symbols from the Chinese zodiac. He was glad they were in virtual reality. He’d never get to see Tiananmen Square without a crowd of thousands in real life. As it was, he and a few dozen business people had the huge, flagstone-covered space to themselves. There were no lines to enter the Great Hall of the People or to see Mao Tse Tung’s embalmed body.
Since Joe’s robe didn’t have pockets, he folded his hands in his sleeves like some modern-day Mandarin. He didn’t feel like making chit chat so he looked at the distant, vermillion buildings instead. It was a pity he couldn’t leave the group behind and explore the Forbidden City on his own.
“Ho!” A man with a prominent forehead and thinning, reddish brown hair pointed to an object in the sky.
Joe recognized him from the pictures Jean Paul had shown him. He was Antonio Ribeiro, CEO of the Brazilian corporation, Vale do Pacarana. Heads tilted to watch the object descend. As it got closer Joe could see it was a flying dragon’s with a sinuous body wriggling through the clouds. The animal flew lower and lower, until he landed taking up most of the square.
“Ho! Ho! Welcome to China!”’
The dragon’s gold scales gleamed in the sunshine. Despite his large wings and powerful claws, he seemed friendly and approachable with his big, cartoon eyes.
“Rather than subject you to the tedium and discomfort of travel,” the dragon continued, “the Silver Phoenix Corporation has designed a virtual reality tour of its factory. Hop on board!”
The dragon’s scales swung open on hinges to provide steps for the guests to climb onto his coils. Hoe followed and found his seat as comfortable as any leather recliner. If only he had some corn chips and beer. While the others were getting settled, Joe found a scale that opened to reveal a cup of green tea and a bamboo basket of steamed dumplings. The dumplings crunched like popcorn and the tea tasted like apple cider. Clearly the Chinese had more work to do before perfecting their simulation. Joe put the refreshments back.
When all the guests were seated on the dragon’s back, it took off. As Joe expected, the ride was more like a Ferris wheel than a roller coaster but it did offer some stunning views of Beijing. After flying over the golden roofs of the Forbidden City, they made their way toward the Summer Palace while passing between mile-high nano-material skyscrapers coated with silver photovoltaic tiles. The Chinese had done some remarkable engineering to accommodate Beijing’s huge population. Automobile traffic was largely replaced by moving sidewalks and light rail. Joe found it hard to believe that Beijing was once one of the world’s most polluted cities. Of course, this was virtual reality. Things could be very different in real life.
As they passed over the old Olympic stadium, Joe’s head began to throb. He adjusted his virtual reality helmet and returned to the simulation in time to see the maglev train heading toward the Great Wall. Beyond that most of China was closed to foreigners. Joe hoped the glimpse some of the forbidden countryside but the dragon climbed and all he could see was blue sky and clouds. The view was obscured even during their descent so none of the passengers could get an idea of the factory’s size. All that was visible after landing was a parking, the front of the building, and some serrated, green hills that could have come from a Song Dynasty painting.
“Welcome to our factory,” a man in a robe said after stepping out the front door. “I’m Mr. Gong and I’ll be your guide, today. If you’ll please follow me.”
He led them through the lobby and into a conference room where a stocky man in a white lab coat stood by a table that was covered with several pieces of dark metal, which had been formed into wires, loops, and figure eights.
“As you know,” Mr. Gong said. “the Silver Phoenix Corporation’s mission is to bring the benefits of room-temperature superconductors to the world. Until now the expense of producing them has limited their use to special applications such as deep-space probes. We have perfected a process that reduces their cost by a factor of ten and are looking for a foreign partner who will incorporate them in devices to sell both in China and overseas. Now, I’d like to introduce the inventor, Dr. Hu Na Xie.”
A few guests chuckled as Mr. Gong gestured to the man in the lab coat. From his appearance Joe guessed Dr. Hu didn’t have much of a social life. The scientist had uncombed hair, wore a ratty sweater under his lab coat, and his crooked teeth crowded his mouth like a neighborhood of wrecked buildings.
“Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of the benefits superconductivity could bring humanity,” Dr. Hu said in a high-pitched voice. “Imagine how much power we could save if there was no resistance in transmission lines. Though there was much competition, I was able to gain admittance to Beijing University where I studied physics and chemistry. I was not a brilliant student but though the guidance of my teachers I was able to complete my Ph.D. thesis on the atomic structure of rare earth alloys. For the past few years I’ve worked to improve the manufacture of room-temperature superconductors. I can never fully express my gratitude to the Silver Phoenix Corporation for giving me the opportunity to work on such an exciting project. Rest assured that we will continue our research on how to make these products more affordable. Thank you.”
“Dr. Hu, can you describe the new manufacturing process?”
“Can we see the production line?”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Gong said. “We did not include this in our virtual reality simulation.”
“Dr. Hu, can these superconductors be used in transmission lines?”
“Sadly no,” Dr. Hu answered. “The material is too brittle. For now, it can only be used in devices such as computers and virtual reality helmets.”
“I’ve heard rumors that China has superconducting transmission lines. Would you care to comment?”
By now Joe’s headache was back. He apologized to his host, took off the virtual reality helmet, and spent a few free hours in his hotel room before joining the other employees of Maple Leaf Gaming, Ltd. No one but Victor Hayden, VP for New Initiatives, believed the Canadian firm would come away with exclusive rights to use the Chinese superconductors in their products. Joe could almost feel sorry for the man if he weren’t such a jackass. Not only was he wrong about Maple Leaf’s chances; he didn’t even know that the four employees he took to China were really working for the French secret service to sabotage the non-Europeans at the meeting.
“Here are your brochures.” Hayden passed out the packets. “Don’t just slip them under hotel-room doors. Knock and give them out personally. If the guest is Chinese, don’t leave until you’ve scheduled him for a demo at our booth.”
“Good idea, sir,” Michel Fourier, the head spy, said. “Maybe we could even hand some out before dinner. Joe, why don’t you circulate and see what you can do?”
Joe got up and moved through the crowd.
“Hi, Maple Leaf Gaming.” He dropped brochures on a table in front of a group of Russians. “Come by our booth for a demo.”
Arabs, Indians, and Europeans – he gave flyers to them all. He didn’t care that they weren’t Chinese. He had another goal in mind. The banquet hall was packed. Certainly there were more people here than on the tour of the factory. Maybe several different tours had gone at once. Anything was possible in virtual reality.
Joe was handing out flyers to a group of Southeast Asians when he caught sight of the Brazilians. There were about a dozen at the table. All were tanned and smiling. The men wore sports coats over open-necked shirts with gold chains in place of ties. The women wore slinky gowns. Sitting next to Antonio Ribeiro was someone he never thought he’d see again. Stephanie!
She appeared more polished than she had in the clinic, now wearing an ankle-length, blue gown that left one gorgeous shoulder bare. Her hair was gathered atop her head exposing the nape of her neck that begged to be kissed. What was she doing here?
Before she could see him, Joe turned, walked away, and saw something as loathsome as Stephanie was beautiful – Arthur Stubing, the man who’d has his father murdered. Joe had memorized the man’s aquiline nose and strong jaw from pictures in the news. Trim and fit with a full head of hair, Stubing was the picture of health as if nature and the devil had conspired to keep him alive as long as possible to inflict the maximum suffering possible on the American people.
Making a split-second decision, Joe veered toward Stubing’s table.
“Hey, fellow North Americans!” Joe held out a brochure. “I’m Canadian, eh!”
“Nice to meet you.” One of Stubing’s lackeys got up and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder to steer him away. “We’re kind of having a private conversation here.”
“Just wanted to sign you up for a demo. We’re Maple Leaf Gaming. Our booth’s around the corner from India Telecom. I can fit you in at 10:30.” Joe turned and knocked a drink into the lap of the woman sitting to Stubing’s right.
“Sorry, I’m such a klutz.” Joe reached for a napkin, knocked Stubing’s chopsticks to the ground, and began blotting the woman’s lap.
While everybody was distracted, he dropped the tablet meant for Ribeiro into Stubing’s cola.
“Sorry, I made a mess but you really ought to check out our games. Space Vixens is a real turn on if you know what I mean.”
“I’m sure it is,” the lackey said. “Now if you’ll excuse us.”
Joe returned to the Maple Leaf table and found a plate of Peking duck at his place. He spread plum sauce, duck, and shaved scallions on the thin pancake; devoured it; and ate several more washed down with rice wine. When the waiters served soup to mark the end of the meal, a commotion erupted in the back of the room. He turned in time to see Stubing vomiting his guts onto the carpet. Michel Fourier caught the smile on Joe’s lips and glared at him throughout the meal.
“You’ve blown the mission, asshole,” he whispered as they left. “You can kiss your visa to stay in France goodbye.”
Blown mission or not, Joe practically danced out of the banquet hall to join the crowd waiting for elevators in the lobby. Each time one came, it filled and left without seeming to shorten the line. Joe was in no hurry. Stubing had finally gotten a little of what he deserved. After a few minutes he managed to squeeze into an elevator with a dozen others. Obeying unspoken etiquette he kept his eyes on the numbers above the door as the elevator made its slow climb to the fifty-second floor where Joe had his room. First some Arabs left, then some Germans and Poles until only a Chinese woman, two men in suits, and Joe remained. The woman got off on the thirty-eighth floor without saying a word. When the doors closed, one of the men hit the emergency stop.
A punch to the gut doubled Joe over. Hands grabbed his hair and a knee smashed into his face pulping his nose. He fell and clutched his arms over his head but the chorus line of boots bypassed his feeble attempt at self protection and did an Irish jig on his floating ribs and kidneys.
“You think you’re funny, asshole?” One of the men hauled Joe to his feet and slammed his face into the wall.
“Easy Mike! Save a little for Stubing!”
His arm twisted painfully behind his back and his face jammed into the corner, Joe breathed through his mouth. With each inhale he felt a sharp pain in his ribs. A chime sounded, the doors opened, and a group of men burst in. Somehow his arm came free in the scuffle. He stumbled into the hall and came face to face with Stephanie.
“I don’t know what you’re doing here but you’ve done us a favor by eliminating some of the competition. What a jerk!” Stephanie put her unused, lipstick-sized electric lash into her clutch purse. “We’d better get you to a doctor.”
In the movies a hero could spring back into gymnastic action almost immediately after a severe beating. Joe’s experience wasn’t like that. He pissed blood for two days. Although the doctor said his kidney wasn’t permanently damaged, Joe had to favor his broken ribs by walking as if balancing a bowl of water on his head. His nose was ruined and would probably need surgery.
With a face the color of rotten eggplant he kept to his hotel room to avoid arousing the interest of the Chinese authorities. When he finally ventured into the exhibition hall with the help of some makeup, he found most members of Maple Leaf Gaming had already left town, leaving an apoplectic vice president behind. Joe was about to leave as well, when a summons from Antonio Ribeiro made him pause.
Ribeiro occupied the entire nineteenth floor with his entourage. When Joe stepped off the elevator, a polite by no-nonsense bodyguard frisked him before allowing him to enter Ribeiro’s suite. Flanked by assistants the great man sat on a crushed-velvet chair reviewing documents on a tablet reader. Every few seconds a laser fired from a metal box in the corner and zapped flying insects or listening devices. Even in the midst of all the luxury Ribeiro seemed relaxed in his short-sleeved shirt.
“Ah, Mr. Hart, welcome!” Ribeiro stood and shook Joe’s hand before saying to his assistants, “You may leave us.”
The others filed out of the room.
“I know it’s early but would you care for some Scotch?” Ribeiro walked to the wet bar and lifted a bottle off a silver tray. “I have it flown in on a private jet from Islay in Scotland.”
Joe shook his head.
“Very well then.” Ribeiro set the bottle down and returned to his seat. “I invited you here to thank you. You see, I know the drug you put in Stubing’s drink was meant for me.” Before Joe could protest, Ribeiro raised a hand palm out. “Please, Mr. Hart. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without access to all kinds of privileged information.
“Then you must also know that Stubing had my father killed.”
“Of course, but still a man in my position has an obligation to reward those who’ve helped him. Let me ask you a question. What plans do you have for your future? I don’t think the French will take you back.”
“The Russians are always looking for workers in Siberia.”
“True, but somehow I fell a man of your talents would be wasted working on an oil rig or growing cabbages. Why don’t you come work for me?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Something far better than what you have been doing. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll have legal Brazilian residency. Stephanie will explain the details. I believe you already know each other.”
Ribeiro turned his attention back to the tablet reader. Joe interpreted that to mean his was dismissed. He found Stephanie waiting for him outside Ribeiro’s door.
“I never mentioned that you look a whole lot better than you did the last time I saw you in Bangalore.”
“Thank you.” Stephanie touched her hair. “It’s really hard for a girl to be stylish when she’s having convulsions.”
“You got me in a whole lot of trouble, though. I had to explain to my former boss why someone else sabotaged the drug trial instead of me. The worst part was that we never finished our date.” Joe looked to see if she smiled. “How about another try?”
“That would be fun but we’d better not jeopardize our professional relationship. Let’s get you some documents and plane tickets so you can leave the country.”
Ah, Rio de Janeiro – Carnival, samba dancing, topless beaches. Sadly for Joe he only spent a few hours in Rio’s airport before flying on to the Amazon rainforest. After a sleepless night in a hotel he took a six-hour boat ride to Villa Cabrina. It was very much a company town. Aside from the factory there was only a store, a few bars, and a hundred cinder-block houses painted pink or turquoise. It was a great town if you liked piranha, Indians, and malaria mosquitoes. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. Settlers killed off most of the Indians decades earlier. At least it was better than a French jail
Joe’s position as second in command of plant security got him one of the houses, a supply of white short-sleeved shirts, and a tiny office with a window-mounted air conditioner that groaned against the heat and humidity. Whenever his supervisor, Ernesto Azevedo, showed up for work, he locked himself behind his giant office door and drank until quitting time. Of the three other security guards only one, Paulo, spoke any English.
“Don’t worry, boss. We’ll take care of everything.”
As far as Joe could tell, taking care of everything meant spending their work days practicing Brazilian Ju Jitsu in makeshift gym located in the storage room. Paulo invited him to join them but the last thing Joe’s broken ribs needed was to have some muscular security guard squeeze his torso like a python.
All this left Joe with little to do except try to study conversational Portuguese on the office computer. More often than not his confusing French and Portuguese words left him discouraged so he spent hours staring out his window at the local fisherman and the strange creatures they hauled out of their motorized canoes.
Paulo interrupted Joe’s marathon of tedium one Friday afternoon.
“Hey boss, you like girls?”
Joe ran through his memories of all the leadership books he’d read to find out if he should even answer. Unfortunately, he hadn’t read any. He nodded.
“Plenty of them down at the Piranha Bar. Only fifty reals a ride.”
Joe studied the man. Why would someone with such fine features, sparkling eyes, and appealing smile need to pay for a girl unless it was his ebony skin? Maybe Brazil wasn’t as multiracial as it claimed to be.
Paulo mistook Joe’s musings for indecision.
“You have to come. Fabio and Felipe are Catholics and I don’t want to go alone. Besides, the best part is bragging afterwards.”
After closing up the two men went out to the parking lot. Paulo had an enormous pickup truck with amber running lights and oversized tires. Joe knew Brazilians flaunted the size of their vehicles but this was ridiculous. Even with cheap ethanol it must have cost a fortune to run the thing. And for what? The isolated town had only a few kilometers of roads.
After climbing into the cab and planting themselves in the plush seats, they drove out along the half-kilometer access road through a chaos of trash, mud, tree stumps, and vines left after the area had been clear cut. Paulo turned on the stereo and sang along.
“É pau, é pedra, é o fim caminho…” Though his voice was wincingly out of tune, he showed no trace of embarrassment.
“Nice car,” Joe said.
“You like it? I had it shipped all the way from Manaus. Would have cost big money but I have lots of friend who work on boats. Great things are happening in the Amazon, boss. Fifteen years ago, my father came to work on the plantations. Now look at me with my own truck!”
They entered town and drove a few blocks before Paulo stopped in front of a cinder-block building that looked like all the others.
“Hey boss, you hungry? This place has the best feijoada. It’s the national dish of Brazil. You have to try it.”
“Okay, I’ll look for a place to park,” Paulo said even though his truck could have fit in the space in front of the restaurant.
“What’s wrong with here?”
“Truck has no reverse gear, boss.”
Inside, the restaurant smelled of bleach. The walls were green, floor cement, and the chair plastic. The food was good, though. Throughout the meal Paulo talked about how his family fled the favela for the Amazon and how young people these days have no appreciation for hard work and sacrifice. Even though he talked throughout the meal, Paulo finished eating about the same time as Joe did. Despite consuming several beers, he didn’t hesitate to get behind the wheel of his truck. Joe offered to drive but Paulo wouldn’t hear of it. Luckily, the Piranha Bar wasn’t far and they didn’t crash on the way. They opened a weathered, wooden door and found a dark interior lit only by a glowing Brahma Beer sign. Joe found a table while Paulo slipped between two men in dirty baseball caps to order at the bar. When he carried two beers to the table, Joe reached for his wallet.
“No, no, you are my guest.” Paulo waved him off. “You and me, we are men. Unlike Fabio and Ernesto, we do not hide behind the church or the bottle. For us there is this.” He placed a spiral-bound notebook on the table.
Joe opened it and found the same pictures as on a porn site. As befitting his management position, he feigned a man-of-the-world expression while examining the surgically-enhanced breasts and skin so flawless it must have been latex. This being Brazil, none of the women had any trace of body hair.
“So, which one do you like, boss?”
Joe settled on a large blonde who resembled Stephanie.
“Oh!” Paulo smiled. “She’s a good one!”
“How about you, Paulo? Who do you like?”
The guard pointed to another blonde with even larger breasts. Their choices settled, Joe insisted on paying. After Paulo negotiated, the bartender gave each man a key attached to a plastic number. Joe and Paulo followed his gesture to a dingy hallway. They came to Joe’s room first.
“Boss, you might want this.” Paulo handed him a condom and went in search of his own adventure.
Joe fit the key in the lock, opened the flimsy door, and found disappointment inside. Instead of a flesh-and-blood woman, there was only a virtual reality helmet on top of the mattress. He’d spent all his money on a computerized wet dream. He thought of simply leaving after a discrete fifteen minutes but he’d already paid. He took off his pants, put on the gear, and let it rip.
The resulting fantasy had all the nuance and emotional depth he’d come to expect from porn. He sat on pink, round bed while a nude woman stood before him offering her breasts, belly, and genitals for his inspection.
“I’m so hot and wet.” Clearly, Paulo had made sure Joe got the English translation. “I want you to eat my pussy.”
She shoved Joe’s head between her legs into something that smelled like a cross between a bakery and an air freshener.
“Give me your hot, throbbing cock.”
Before Joe knew it, he was on his back and the woman was riding him like a bucking bronco. After three minutes of gymnastics the session ended.
“You look like you could go another round, champ,” the woman said. “Second time is only forty-five reals.”
Joe took off the helmet, threw the filled condom in a plastic waste basket, and dressed. He found Paulo waiting for him in the bar.
“How’d it go, boss? Pretty hot, no?”
Making an excuse of a fictional report that was due tomorrow, Joe begged off another round of drinks. Out in the sweltering night he debated whether to walk home. Deciding it would be unsocial, he followed Paulo to the truck only to discover that someone had parked a red hatchback in front of it. Paulo handed him the keys.
“You steer, boss. I’ll push.”
Joe started the engine and shifted into neutral. Paulo strained and managed to push the vehicle about twenty centimeters before it touched the car in back of it. Joe cut the wheel and inched forward. Then they repeated the process. After three of four tries, Joe lost patience, straightened the wheels, and used the powerful engine to push the red hatchback forward. Paulo was then able to drive him home, a journey of only three blocks.
Joe wasn’t sure if he was imagining it but the security guards seemed to treat him with greater deference after his adventure. It came as no surprise when Paulo’s invited him to join the guards on a boat ride the following weekend. Expecting a cooler of beer in a motorized canoe, Joe was astonished to see a large houseboat tied to the company dock.
“Boa tarde! Boa tarde!” Felipe pumped Joe’s hand and gestured to the woman next to him.
“This is Felipe’s wife, Elana,” Paulo translated.
Joe shook her hand. The two made an amusing couple. Felipe was swarthy and stocky. His wife was thin and sinewy so much so that they looked like a number ten standing next to each other. Fabio waved from behind the wheel. He was blonde but the proportions of his face left no doubt he was Latino. His wife, a black woman with shining eyes, looked up from sorting a dozen plastic, food containers and gave a shy grin. A half-dozen children ran around the deck. Joe never learned whose they were and they seemed too occupied to pay him any attention.
“Take a seat, boss.” Paulo ushered Joe to a folding chair under the awning on the back deck. “You like a Caipirinha?” Before Joe could answer, Paulo handed him a potent mixture of rum and lime juice.
Fabio fired up the engines and Felipe cast off. The boat pulled away from the dock. Within minutes they rounded a bend and were out of sight of civilization. Only the shining river and a wall of trees on its bank were visible. Occasionally Joe spotted a bird.
“Try one of these, boss. They’re called Pão de Queijo.”
Seconds after Joe bit into the cheese roll, Fabio’s wife handed him a plate heaped with sausage, fish, duck stew, and chicken croquettes. Joe ate slowly while the others talked. The feast must have cost a fortune and he wanted to leave plenty for his hosts.
“Have more, boss.” Paulo handed him another Caipirinha.
After second and third helpings came honey cake and tapioca in coconut milk. Once fed, Fabio brought out his guitar. The others played rhythm by stomping, slapping the gunwales, and clinking beer bottles. The Caipirinhas made Joe too loose to care about who was steering. He joined in the song in butchered Portuguese to the cheers of his hosts.
They returned to the dock after dark. Joe thanked his hosts.
“It’s nothing, boss. We’re a team. We take care of each other.”
After the exciting weekend, returning to the tyranny of Monday was almost intolerable so Joe was relieved when Paulo came into his office shortly after lunch.
“Hey boss, I know how we can make extra money.” He sat down and leaned forward. “You remember the Piranha Bar? The owner knows the guy who puts the girls in the helmets.”
“You mean the guy who changes the program in the virtual reality helmets to porn?”
“Yes, he takes old helmets and puts girls inside. Anyway, he pays one thousand reals for old helmets. Doesn’t matter if there’s a little bit wrong with them. You know where we can find lots of old helmets? Right here! In the factory. They make one and it’s scratched, it doesn’t work right. They throw it in the storage cage. It’s trash. Nobody pays any attention. Must be hundreds of them. Just think. A year’s salary.
“Anyway, the man wants a sample. I can’t get it but you can. Nobody will miss it and we’ll get a thousand reals. If the man likes it, he’ll buy more.”
“Let me see what I can do,” Joe said.
After Paulo left, Joe thought about the problem. Something didn’t smell right. For instance, why would Ribeiro put a factory in the middle of nowhere unless it was making something secret? If that was true, Paulo’s friend was after something more than just scrap. He picked up the phone and dialed Ribeiro’s number. A familiar voice answered.
“Stephanie, Joe Hart here. I think we might have a problem…”
Fifteen minutes later Paulo returned with Ernesto, the head of security.
“Congratulations, Mr. Hart. You passed,” said Paulo sounding like a different person. “You’re going to Sao Paulo.”
“What Paulo means to say is that this was a test.” For someone who supposedly drank all day, Ernesto was surprisingly lucid. “Sorry to put you through this but we needed to know we could trust you. I think you’ll find your next assignment a lot more glamorous.”
After a long boat ride and a five-hour flight, Joe arrived at Sao Paulo’s Conghonhas Airport with only his bag and a bad case of confusion. The crowd in the terminal was a rushing swirl of different races and ethnicities. All seemed to be talking on cell phones in a cacophony of Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. He looked around like a man caught in white-water rapids.
“Mr. Hart?” A stocky man with Asian features slipped a photo into the lapel pocket of his cream-colored sports jacket. “I’m Alonso Park. Mr. Ribeiro asked me to get you settled.” He took Joe’s bag. “I have a car outside.”
An Asian speaking with a Latin accent seemed incongruous but Joe was too tired to care, preferring simply to let Park lead him to a gray sedan in the parking lot. The ride into town was a blur of skyscrapers lit by colorful LEDs, crowded sidewalks, traffic, and unfamiliar road signs.
“We took the liberty of renting you a place on the edge of the financial district. I think it will meet with your approval.” Park accelerated past a semi and squeezed into the gap behind a green compact. If the truck’s blaring horn bothered him, he didn’t show it. “You’ll like Sao Paulo. It’s the largest city in the southern hemisphere – great food, wonderful museums, and world-class sports teams.”
Joe didn’t have a clue where they were but the streets kept getting smaller, which must have meant they were getting close to his destination. Eventually Park pulled into a driveway and tapped a card against a reader to open the gate to an underground garage. They took a mirrored elevator to the 82nd floor, walked down a carpeted hallway, turned a few corners, and stopped in front of a door numbered 8232.
“We didn’t have it biometrically keyed,” Park used the card to open the door, “but there are instructions inside on how to do it.”
On seeing the sunken living room and the view of the skyline through the picture window, Joe had the same reaction as when checking into a hotel he couldn’t afford. He had to stop himself from dashing downstairs to find a desk clerk and explain that this had all been a mistake.
“Your new documents are here.” Park handed him a manila envelope. “With both the French and Americans after you, we found it simpler to give you a new name, Joseph Thomas, son of a Canadian father and Brazilian mother. I’ll let you get some rest. If you’re hungry the Bahia down the street is good. There’s also plenty of food in the refrigerator. Good night.”
Joe grilled a steak and opened a bottle of wine. After eating he put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, took a hot shower, and went to bed. Even though he was exhausted, worry and excitement kept sleep away. He threw back the high thread-count, cotton sheets and got up. The flat-screen TV took up an entire wall of the living room but nothing on it held his interest. Such a pity that there were only soap operas to go with all the technology and special effects.
Exploring the apartment, he found a walk-in closet with plenty of clothes in his size. He put on a golf shirt and pair of khaki pants before going outside. Joe started carefully by studying the front of his building and jotting down the address. As always in a new city he would not walk too far, limiting himself to circling the block or walking down one street and returning via the same path.
The street was like a canyon surrounded by mountains of concrete and glass. At this hour in the evening it was strangely devoid of life. Huge video monitors showed ads for shoes and soft drinks but the shop windows were shuttered and the sidewalks were deserted except for the occasional homeless person sleeping in an entryway.
He walked until he came to several cafés filled with beautiful people eating beautiful food but he didn’t have the patience for people or beauty. He left them and their chicken in banana leaves and prawns with coconut milk and walked until he found a convenience store where he spent a half hour studying prepared food in colorful packages. He bought some cookies not because he needed them but because he needed a purpose, some reason for being out at night.
The next several days were like that. No one from Ribeiro’s office called so he spent his time exploring the city, venturing farther and farther each successive day. Money wasn’t a problem. When he used the bank card, he’d found in the envelope Park had given him, he learned his bank account contained enough to last him for months. Joe enjoyed the time off but there were only so many museums he could visit. He needed something to do. To his everlasting regret, it found him.
“I think you’ll find the apartment wonderful.” The landlady took a key out of her purse as she paused in front of the door. She was a plain woman with an overbite and no chin. “The eastern exposure gets marvelous sun in the mornings. You’re not late nighters, are you?”
“No,” Stephanie said. “Joseph and I like to get up early.”
A door across the hall opened and an old woman peeked out.
“Hello, Mrs. de Groot!” the landlady said.
The crone ducked back inside.
“Here we are.” The landlady led them into the apartment and gestured to the view of railroad tracks outside a grimy window. “As you can see, it’s very spacious and the subway is within walking distance. What brings you to Brussels?”
“Work. I evaluate loans for infrastructure projects for EMI Bank and my wife here…” Joe gazed into Stephanie’s eyes and squeezed her hand. “Well, we’re thinking of starting a family.”
“You couldn’t find a better place than the Potempkin Village Apartments. I like to think of us as a tight-knit community. Why, Mrs. de Groot has been here for over twenty years.”
Even though the nosy neighbor made the place unsuitable, Joe ignored the bass blasting through the thin walls and pretended interest in the peeled linoleum in the kitchen and bedroom that smelled of cat urine. Both he and Stephanie made favorable comments before leaving.
“God!” Joe took a deep breath once the landlady left them outside. “I thought I was going to choke in there!”
“I know.” Stephanie leaned on his shoulder and laughed. “And that nosy witch across the hall!”
“Should we check out one more?” Joe looked at his list.
“We’ve suffered enough for one day. There are three things to sample in Brussels” French fries, chocolate, and beer. Come on, bucko. I’m buying.”
They took a bus to the Grand Place, sampled exorbitant chocolates, and looked for a bar.
“There!” Stephanie pointed to a black-and-white-striped storefront called Chez Zèbre.
They dashed across the street. A car braked and honked its horn but Stephanie was not perturbed. Once inside the Zebra, they found everything striped – the walls, carpet, bar, and even the patrons’ clothing.
“Excuse me,” the bartender said. “You must wear stripes to enter.”
Stephanie adjusted the software on her chameleon skinsuit.
“If the gentleman would like, we have a jacket he can borrow.”
“Maybe we’ll come back another time.” Joe turned toward the orange-and-purple-striped door.
“Come on,” Stephanie grabbed his arm. “It’ll be fun.”
After a quick change into a chalk-striped suit jacket that fit like a shroud and smelled like one too, Joe found himself sitting across a striped table from Stephanie.
“I hate wearing other peoples’ clothes,” he said. “Makes me feel poor.”
“Really?” Stephanie sipper her beer and smiled. “If you had enough money, you wouldn’t have to care what you wore.”
“How much do you have?”
“Enough for a ratty T-shirt and old sweat pants. I still have to put on makeup but I’m working on it.”
“What will you do when you reach your goal? Walk around in three winter coats and push a shopping cart?”
“I’ll buy a place in Buenos Aires and go to film school. Instead of being a bit player in some sordid corporate drama, I’ll direct actors in my own sordid dramas.”
“All this sordidness doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m a freelancer. I have to be practical. Besides, what difference does it make which corporate goon rules the world? They’re all the same.”
Joe didn’t argue.
After dinner they went to a club where Joe was shocked to learn that despite her elegance, Stephanie was a horrible dancer. Even in a crowd of writhing strangers she moved as if balancing a ton of scrap iron on her shoulders. After a few songs he got her off the dance floor and plied her with drinks at the bar instead. They stayed out until 1:00 AM before returning to separate rooms in their hotel.
Six days later they rented a place using the names Arthur and Catherine Klein. The apartment was on the seventh floor in a complex of four buildings. The manager had an office across the courtyard and the inhabitants were mostly foreign professionals who worked too long to show any interest in their neighbors. No one would bother them.
While shopping for furniture Joe and Stephanie discovered their different tastes. He preferred blonde wood, clean lines, and solid colors while she tended toward the Baroque. Their opinions caused much discussion but the final word was hers. All Joe could do was watch as she paid and arranged for delivery.
Spies and mercenaries are all the same. After only a few years experience Joe could smell the exploitation beneath their façade of professionalism. The latest was William, the Englishman put in charge of the Brussels operation. Everything about him from his wrestler’s build to his close-cropped hair and piercing gray eyes said he put up with no nonsense. He wore a neatly pressed gray suit with matching shirt and tie. Meticulous in his dress he was no doubt the same about the details of his work.
“I trust you had a nice holiday,” he said to Joe and Stephanie. “Now the honeymoon’s over.” He placed several photos on the table. “Our target is Anders van Klimpt, customs supervisor at the Brussels Airport.”
Joe studied the photos. Van Klimpt’s body combined scrawny limbs from lack of exercise with an oversized belly due to self indulgence. This was not to say he didn’t care for his appearance. The orange tint of his skin indicated prolonged use of tanning products and he’d grown his blonde hair long in a failed attempt to disguise the bald spot on the back of his head.
“Mr. Van Klimpt fancies himself a ladies’ man, a fact that would no doubt upset his Filipina wife Vera.” William set down more photos of Van Klimpt with various women. “Your job, Stephanie, is to gain his trust and convince him to allow our shipments through customs without inspection. Should you fail, we’ll use the video recordings of you activities in the apartment as additional leverage.”
“If you want me to do some seducing, I’m going to need a new wardrobe.” Stephanie held out her hand and William gave her several hundred euros.
A guy, a bar, a beautiful woman. Joe felt they should be there but William saw no reason to risk spooking the target. Stephanie went alone leaving Joe with the man as talkative as an iceberg to monitor the apartment cameras from a room in a hotel across the street.
“How long do you think she’ll take?” Joe asked.
“As long as she takes.” William used the control to pan the camera around the bedroom.
Discussing the city’s culture would make Joe seem frivolous and he knew better than to ask about William’s past jobs. That left nothing to do but stare at the monitor as William switched to views of blank walls, the empty shower, and living room couch. Joe hoped for some action but the boredom lasted two more nights. His job got more uncomfortable once Stephanie brought Anders back to the love nest.
“Can I get you a drink?” She let her purse drop to the floor.
Without a word Anders was on her, his head buried in her neck and his hand clawing between her legs. Clutched together the two moved like an addled, four-legged animal taking several awkward steps before collapsing on the couch.
“Just a minute.” Stephanie pulled her blouse over her head to free the breasts Joe had dreamed about.
Somehow, they weren’t as perfect as he’d thought. Instead of lovely pears they were shaped more like long-necked bottles and her nipples seemed too big to be in proportion. What was even worse was that she was handing them out like after-dinner minks at some greasy diner. Typical! Joe would have had a better chance with her if he’d avoided the gym, gained twenty kilograms, and worked for the customs service.
“Ooh!” Stephanie rubbed Anders’ crotch, unzipped him, and pulled his pants down around his ankles.
She followed them to the carpet where she squatted between his pimply legs and took his cock in her mouth. Anders moaned helplessly and grabbed the couch’s fabric as she moved her head in and out.
Joe couldn’t watch. He turned to William who showed no emotion as he zoomed out to include Anders’ face in the damning video.
Back on the monitor, Stephanie pulled her head away moments before Anders let go and finished him off by hand allowing the camera to get a good view of him ejaculating on his pale, pot belly.
“Your turn.” She crawled back on the couch, forced Anders’ head between her legs, and ground her shaved pussy into his face. “Oh yeah! Do it, baby! Do it!”
She turned to the camera and smirked as if to say, “Hope you guys are enjoying the show.”
What do you say to the woman you watched sucking someone’s cock? Joe kept his comments clamped in a vice when he and William met Stephanie for breakfast the following morning. The next challenge was what to look at. If he stared at her face, he’d see her tongue circling Anders’ glans and her mouth drooling over his testicles. Avoider her would alert her to his thoughts. Grateful for a minute to hide behind the menu, he categorized the events that had brought him to this point in his life and speculated about what he could have done differently.
“You did well,” William told Stephanie. “When do you think he’ll be ready?”
“Maybe in a couple of days.”
“I’d give it a week.” William set down his menu. “The temptation in situations like this is to act before you gain the target’s trust.”
“Okay but they ought to pay me extra for this,” Stephanie said. “That guy’s breath is awful.”
“I’ll add that to the recommendation I send to our employer.” William turned to Joe. “Any comments?”
Joe’s response caught somewhere between his chest and throat. Fortunately, the waitress came. He ordered something, maybe a café au lait and a croissant. Joe didn’t remember much of the conversation after that. Maybe William said something about not falling in love with coworkers once they left Stephanie behind. He hated his life.
That night Joe took the first shift and settled in to watch the monitors while William went to eat. There was little action in the apartment. Anders had not yet arrived and Stephanie had just stepped out of the shower with a beige towel wrapped around her torso and another around her hair.
Joe reached for his cell phone and thought better of it. It might be monitored. He checked the clock. There was plenty of time.
After making sure he had the key, Joe left the hotel room, walked down the blue carpeted hallway to the elevator, and pressed the down button. He shared a ride with a gray-haired man carrying a silver water bottle.
Once outside Joe stood on the sidewalk waiting for a break in traffic. When there was a gap, he dashed across the middle of the street and hurried into Stephanie’s building. After another elevator ride, he knocked on her door.
“Just a minute!”
The lock turned and she opened the door. She’d changed into a set of matching terrycloth sweatpants and top. On seeing Joe, the smile vanished from her face to be replaced by a look of concern.
Joe gestured her into the hallway. She stood leaning against the wall, her arms crossed over her heart.
“You don’t have to do this,” Joe said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t have to sleep with that pig.” Joe looked at his watch. “William won’t be back for an hour. Grab your stuff and we can be on a train out of town before he returns.”
“It’s sweet of you to care but I know what I’m doing. Now get back to your monitor.” She went back into the apartment. Moments later she was back in the hall. “If you can’t handle this job, I’ll have William replace you. Am I clear?”
Muttering, “That went well,” He returned to the hotel and shared an elevator with the same old man he’d ridden with before.
“What’s in the bottle, anyway?” Joe asked.
“De-ionized water,” the old man said. “Any doctor will tell you that all disease is caused by too much acid in the blood…”
The last thing Joe wanted to hear was a sales pitch from a nut job. He got off at the next stop and walked up five flights of stairs to get back to his room. Back inside he opened a packet of coffee, poured it into the funnel of the plastic coffee maker, and added water. The indicator light glowed red as the water began to boil. He didn’t understand people. Once the coffee brewed, he poured a cup, added a packet of creamer, and returned to the monitors moments before Ander arrived.
Stephanie greeted him by peeling off her top. Joe sipped his coffee and burned his lip. It wasn’t long before the couple’s clothes were strewn on the bedroom floor. It was best to treat the video like some TV show as if Stephanie’s glorious hips straddling Anders’ flabby body were nothing more than some actor’s simulating passion. Joe contented himself with a few close-ups of Anders’ face. If William wanted to get all Fellini or Minkowski with the cameras, he was welcome to it. The door opened.
“Anything going on?” William set a bag of energy bars and six pack of soda on the counter.
“Just the usual.” Joe pointed at the monitor where Anders was ramming it home into Stephanie doggy style.
Joe went to bed after William took over at midnight. When he woke up the next morning, he found William slumped in the chair with his eyes closed.
“Sorry.” William straightened up. “I didn’t hear you.”
There was little action on the monitor. Anders must have gone home to his family since Stephanie was sleeping alone.
“Take a look at this.” William brought up the video recorded the previous night.
Anders lay nestled in Stephanie’s arms with his face resting on her naked breast.
“Anders.” She stroked his hair. “Can you answer a question for me?”
“Of course.” He kissed her nipple.
“Why do the EU rules have to be so strict?”
“Rules are there to protect you and me.”
“It’s just that my friend Noelle is going to lose her home.” Stephanie sat up. “Her husband Jules took out a loan to buy some electronic things in Indonesia so he could sell them here and earn some money for his daughter’s college but the customs agents won’t let the stuff into the country. Now the loan is coming due and they could lose everything. Jules tried talking to the officials but they just gave him the run around. Is there any way you can help?”
Anders sat up.
“You should be more careful who you make friends with.” He wagged his finger at her. “Trying to influence a customs official is a criminal offense.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Stephanie moved her hand under the sheets and between Anders’ legs. “If Jules learns his lesson, he won’t be so reckless next time.”
William turned off the monitor. “What’s wrong with that bitch? I told her to wait.”
There would be no more screw ups. William demanded something ironclad to ensure Anders would abandon his principles. It was decided that Stephanie introduce erotic asphyxiation into the sex games. William broached the subject in an afternoon between with Stephanie and Joe.
“This will eliminate the risk to you.” William slipped the end of a thin belt through the buckle and pulled it into a noose. “The catch will keep it from closing while the elastic will give van Klimpt the impression that it’s getting tighter.” He handed her a prescription bottle. “Hide the capsule under your tongue and bite it at the appropriate moment. It’ll render you unconscious. I’ll be waiting outside. On Joe’s signal, I’ll burst in and accuse Anders of your murder. Any questions?”
Everything was in place when Anders arrived that night at 8:00. Stephanie welcomed him with wine and an open-mouthed kiss.
“I thought we could try something adventurous.” She ran her hand over his belly.
“You know I’m all about adventure.”
Stephanie slipped from his grasp and retreated to the bedroom. Anders followed and caught her silk blouse as he walked through the door.
“Oh, you like games.”
Stephanie reached behind her back to unhook her black lace bra and fired it at him like a slingshot. Anders smiled and moved in.
“Have you ever tried choking?” She slipped off her belt. “It makes your orgasms more intense.”
She made a noose and moved to put it around Anders’ neck. He stopped her.
“It’s not a good idea.” The smile vanished from Anders’ face.
“There’s nothing to worry about. I’ve done it lots of times. If you’re scared, I’ll go first.” She led him to the bed.”
“We don’t need this.” Anders took the belt from her and let it fall. “We have plenty of passion without these toys.” He began unbuttoning her pants.
Stephanie turned away when he tried to kiss her. Not taking the hint he licked her breasts. She stared out the window.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You never do what I want. It’s always what you want.” She sighed, pulled off her pants, and lay back. “Go ahead then.”
“If you really want to…”
“No, it’s all right.”
“What do I have to do?”
Stephanie sat up and retrieved the belt from the floor.
“Finger fuck me.” She looped the belt around her neck. “I’ll tap your arm when I get close. Then pull the belt tight.”
Anders lay beside her his hand rubbing between her legs.
“Take your pants off.” Stephanie fumbled with his zipper.
Anders stood, slipped out of his pants, and lay back beside her.
“That’s it.” Stephanie grabbed his cock. “Yeah, like that!” Her body tensed as her breathing came faster and faster. “Now!” She tapped his arm. “Oh baby! Now!”
Anders pulled the belt tight and Stephanie’s body shook. After about a minute she stilled.
“Stephanie?” Anders removed the belt. “Are you all right?” He tapped her face.
“Go!” Joe said into the cell phone.
Anders looked up from Stephanie’s still body when he heard the door open. When William entered the room, he jumped away from the bed and held his pants in front of him as if ashamed of his pathetic body.
“What’s going on here?” William stepped over to the bed and put his hand on the pulse in Stephanie’s neck. He turned to the cowering Anders. “She’s dead!”
“Who?” Anders stammered. “Who are you?”
“Who I am isn’t important. What is important is whether you want to spend the rest of your life in jail.”
Anders turned pale.
“We have all of this recorded on video. All I have to do is send it to the prosecutor and you can say goodbye to your wife, fancy car, and all your girlfriends. But there is another option.”
“Simply allow a few shipments through customs and you can continue with your life as if this never happened.” William looked Anders up and down. “Put your pants on Mr. van Klimpt. Go home. Have a drink. I’ll dispose of the body.”
Anders hurried into his clothes and rushed to the door with his shoes untied. He turned to William.
“The girl, who was she?”
“Just a drug addict,” William said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t feel guilty. She would have died of an overdose in a year or so anyway.”
Joe waited a few minutes for Anders to get clear before heading up to the apartment. When he entered, he found William kneeling next to Stephanie and pumping her chest with outstretched arms. Her face was an unearthly blue and her hips tilted with each compression.
“Breathe, damn it!” He placed his mouth over hers and exhaled into her lungs. “The belt! The fucker used the wrong belt!”
Joe finished his Caipirinha and swirled the ice cubes in the glass. He wanted another but he still had work to do before the evening rush.
“Ernesto!” He motioned to the bartender. “A coffee!”
Joe looked away from the television above the bar to concentrate on the budget displayed on the smart paper on the table. It had been three years since the events in Brussels, three years since he’d used Ribeiro’s generous stipend to open a restaurant in Bahia’s largest city, Salvador, after retiring from corporate espionage. It had been a good decision. Running a restaurant kept him too busy to think. True, he’d gained twenty kilograms but the white sports jackets and tropical shirts hid his bulk well.
A blonde man with a bad sunburn approached Joe’s table.
“You look familiar. From Cleveland. Aren’t you?” The man offered his hand. “Art Rogers. Didn’t we go to high school together?”
“Cleveland?” Joe shook his head. “I’m from Dayton. Maybe you saw me at a basketball game.”
“Did you play?”
“No, only watched. What brings you to Bahia, Mr. Rogers?”
“Rounding up work for some freelance software programmers back home or at least trying to. The Brazilians aren’t hiring. You live here?”
“Wish I did,” Rogers said. “Things went all to hell after the Supreme Court said states didn’t have to follow the Bill of Rights. Now Marxists are planting bombs and the Pinks are shooting union members. You don’t know anybody who’d sponsor an immigrant, do you?”
A familiar face flashed on the television. Joe held up a hand for silence.
“Ernesto, turn up the sound!”
Scenes of police leading suspects out of several homes appeared on the television. From the flatness of the image Joe suspected the video had been shot with telephoto lenses.
“After a six-month investigation in collaboration with the EU’s International Traffic in Arms Regulation branch, Belgian police arrested several members of a smuggling ring,” the announcer said. “The suspects are accused of selling quantum cryptography devices to Justin Mazinga’s Hutu Resistance Army which is waging a guerilla war against the popularly-elected government of the Democratic Republic of Zaire. International security experts say the quantum devices would give the rebels a huge advantage against government forces as they would make coded transmissions unbreakable.”
Joe caught a glimpse of a handcuffed Anders van Klimpt standing by the open door of an unmarked car before a policeman put a hand on the customs agent’s head to guide it under the frame as van Klimpt got into the back seat.
“Ah, Mr. Hart! Mr. Ribeiro is expecting you. If you’ll please come this way.” Alonso Park shook Joe’s hand and led him into the solarium where Ribeiro sat in a leather reclining chair.
A medical technician finished attaching an IV full of green fluid before leaving the two men alone except for one of Ribeiro’s ever-present bodyguards. Behind him the glass revealed a view of a manicured lawn the size of a football field.
“Unusual color, isn’t it?” Ribeiro gestured to the IV. “My doctors tell me it comes from light diffracting off the nanobots. If you haven’t tried them, you must. The microscopic robots clear your arteries and mop up stray cancer cells before they can grow into a problem. With this therapy, I’ll live until I’m two hundred.”
“True, but the treatment costs more than the gross national product of a small country.” Joe took a seat. “That’s not why you wanted to talk to me. Is it?”
“I wanted to remind you that I appreciate your continuing discretion about that little matter in Brussels.”
“Why did you support Justin Mazinga? His followers hack the limbs of children for God’s sake!”
“You don’t see the big picture, Joseph.” Ribeiro sat up and winced from the sting as he jiggled the IV needle. “When Mazinga takes over, he’ll reward his friends with access to his country’s minerals – coltan and such. With that I can force the Chinese to share their room-temperature superconductors. They have more than you saw at that conference. It’s fantastic stuff – resistance less transmission lines, levitating trains, and even ion powered rocket motors. It’ll be a third industrial revolution. Any country that misses out will be left behind. True, Mazinga is a barbarian but sometimes compromises have to be made for the greater good.” Ribeiro poured Joe a glass of fruit juice. “Obviously my company can’t afford to be tied to this scandal. Your silence will be well rewarded.”
“I’ll tell you what I want.” Joe sipped his juice. It tasted like vanilla ice cream. “I want my homeland back the way it should have been, as if the rich and corporations hadn’t taken over.”
“Joseph, even I can’t overturn the natural order of things. Your fellow countrymen admitted as much when they voted their betters into power.”
“Not in reality,” Joe said, “in virtual reality. I want your Buenos Aires studios to make me a virtual America, a place I can escape to when I’m sick of the world as it is.”
Joe pulls the black Corvette in the space next to his wife’s Ford Eagle, set the parking brake, and kills the ignition. The sound of bass and electric guitars comes from the O’Neil daughters practicing in the open garage across the street. Drum beats echo off neighborhood walls.
“How you doing?” Joe nods to the neighbor sanding a power boat next door.
The aroma of roasted garlic greets him as he steps through the front door. Stephanie enters the hall holding a wooden spoon stained red from pasta sauce.
“I got home a little early and dinner started.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You know, I’ve been thinking we should get a dog.
Copyright Jon Wesick 2020