13 – April 1

“So, how do we kill him?”

The question hung over the group of six like a stale belch, a natural if uncouth digestive consequence of their occupation.

All of them, at some point or another, had been paid to enforce the law, whatever that meant. They were now paid handsomely for their knowledge of its malleability and porosity. As such, the half dozen that formed this select tier each had their unique background and skill set.

One had tired of his role as a dead-end deputy to a celebrated sheriff, especially after being caught one too many times desperate for dirt. Another ran afoul of quality assurance when cleaning-up for corporate conglomerate. Two hailed from the fringes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, albeit as low-rung surveillance professionals tired of the tectonic grind of watching and waiting. An analyst from the Central Intelligence Agency found himself burned for sharing domestic insight for foreign currency. Only the lone female remained cryptic to her colleagues—a habit she picked up in the windowless confines of the National Security Administration.

Today’s meet around the conference table was meant to bridle their collected perversions of regulation towards a shared pursuit—the satisfaction of their employer’s clientele, at whatever the cost.

“No man, no problem. Right?”

“Who’s the man in question?”

“The one we decided to test our theory of misery on. The one we wanted to see controlled.”

“We started innocently enough, spreading rumors, killing career prospects, turning his friends, his family, hell, his whole hometown against him.”

“Oh yeah. How’s that working out?”

“He figured it out.”

“What?”

“He figured it out. Our plan.”

“How’d that happen?”

“We were tailing him, first on foot then by car.”

“He’s an observant one.”

“Let’s not give him too much credit. How do you tell an undercover cruiser from painted cop cars?”

“I don’t know, how?”

“The unmarked ones keep following. Anyway, we thought he would eventually kowtow, but this guy’s religion is staying in his own lane. So, we took it up a notch—infiltrated his e-mail account, posed as an old woman in California, had potluck invitations and church newsletters pouring in, all to provide cover for offering up her bank account information as a tainted apple.”

“Did he bite?”

“He politely e-mailed her back with news of the mistake. When that bounced back, he reached out to members of the group. When the strangers were unresponsive, he went to the provider, asking how this error could have occurred. When they didn’t have an answer, but the e-mails kept coming, he put two and two together and grew wise.”

“Stupid.”

“These buffoons we had monitoring his electronic habits got so frustrated that they hacked and changed his e-mail password, his online profile, even his blog. Out of spite.”

“That’s what you get for hiring bush-league operatives.”

“It gets worse. They then entered his house unlawfully, put up microphones and cameras, all with the intent of catching some filth they could blackmail and gossip about.”

“Gestapo tactics? Talk about fruit of the poisonous tree. Did they find anything?”

“Not a thing. I’m telling you, we need to kill him.”

“Right. So, what are our options?”

The group paused in thought, malicious gears set into motion.

“What about the old ice-pellet gun?”

The room groaned.

“Every time! You and that damn ice pellet gun.”

“A man ends with a hole in his head while the ballistic melts away? It’s awesome!”

“It’s also bound to end up on every newspapers’ weird but true page. Any other cold war relics people want to dust off?”

“What about radiation poisoning.”

“Christ, I was kidding!”

“Think about it. Instead of being ingested, the material is injected into the center of a bar of soap.”

“How does the soap get to the bathroom?”

“We could have the lab make a duplicate then plant it in the bathroom. After two weeks of use the target reaches the point-of-no-return.”

“Two weeks is too potent. We need micro-doses. Something like a cream or gel. He uses is to shave, and it gets absorbed by the tiny cuts made by the razor. By the time the summer comes, ultraviolet rays plum the malady of cancer. Flowers to the family by Fall. Yawn.”

“How do you solve the Geiger trail?”

“We send a team to clean-up any residual radiation that is confined to one location—the bathroom.”

“Sloppy business, radioactive isotopes. Leaves a trail. Could lead back to us. Plus, the expense.”

“We know he’s addicted.”

“I wouldn’t call pot an addiction.”

“He does it nearly every day.”

“Do you like milk with your cereal?”

“What does that have to do with—”

“I like milk with my cereal. Have it every day. Does that mean I’m addicted to milk and cereal?”

“I don’t care about your breakfast habits. I care about controlling this kid.”

“Yeah, well, he gave that vice up for Lent, so—”

“The pious little prick.”

“All the better. There are too many moving pieces with planting a dirty narcotic. We would have to work with the dealer, or his supplier. That’s a loose end. And what if there’s a mistake and it goes to the wrong person? Or imagine he shares it. A faulty sample always leads to an investigation.”

“So? We pay the detective off. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Brilliant, another loose end. This is why we don’t tamper with medications. It’s too obvious.”

Mindful machinations went back at it.

“What about a car bomb?”

The room laughed.

“Might as well strangle him with a neon light.”

“Car accident?”

“Risky with no guarantees.”

“Why don’t we just go in and kill him and then make it look like a suicide?”

“You mean plant evidence?”

“I mean erasing evidence that doesn’t suit our goal and leaving evidence that does.”

“You mean manufacturing evidence.”

“Manufactured evidence is still evidence.”

“How do we get in?”

“Old FBI trick. We cut off the cable and wait for him to call the company. We then pose as repairmen, thus attaining consent to enter the home.”

“The FBI does that?”

“The FBI lies all the time. Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“See?”

“Well, then, who’s going to do the deed?”

An uneasy moment of responsibility descended upon the gathering.

“We could draw straws.”

“No, no I don’t agree this.”

“Agree to what?”

“Evil.”

“Don’t knock it until you try it, Hun. You’re letting your bias get the better of you.”

“My bias against what?”

“Evil.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Rhythm and reason make the world go ’round. Luckily, we create both here. That’s why we get paid the big bucks.”

“Let’s get back on track. What we really need is for this guy to commit suicide. Anyone have any ideas on how to make that happen, as covert and efficiently as possible?”

Silence. Then.

“I may have something.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“For years, the Department of Defense researched the development of ultra-sophisticated mind-altering technology.”

Eye-rolls and snickers were shared. He continued.

“It’s called PsyOps. They used it in Desert Storm. It consists of subliminal messages carried on what they call ‘silent sound.’ It alters brainwaves, manipulating their patterns into emotions of fear, anxiety, despair and hopelessness.”

“Wait, so you tell them to feel sad?”

“It’s more than that. It makes the target feel actual misery and terror. Subsonic frequencies that give you the chills for no reason, but you can’t even tell it’s there. The cognitive dissonance drives you crazy.”

Impressed, the individuals leaned back in unison.

“Interesting. How would it be put into practice?”

“We hit him while he sleeps. Every night, while still ruining his day-to-day. He knows we’re following? Great, get a dozen identical models of car to take turns following him around. He keeps trying to get a job? Leave a wad of cash to his manager with the instructions to make his life a living nightmare. He comes home, hoping to unwind? Nope, we hit him with the frequency of doom. Sooner or later, he’ll break.”

“Are we sure we can do this to an American citizen?”

“We can do what’s necessary. In case you haven’t figured it out, that’s why we exist.”

A pause. Then.

“Anyone have anything better?”

One hand shot up.

“So that’s a no on the ice-pellet gun?”

Chuckles were shared.

“Sounds like we have a plan. How soon can we start making this happen?”

“That’s for the boss to decide.”

“Are we finally getting to meet him today?”

“I think so.”

“Has anyone met him yet?”

Shrugs.

“Any word on him? Anyone know where he came from?”

“One of the higher-ups told me that his hometown has the highest capita of psychologists in the world.”

“Why does that matter?”

“You tell me a better indicator of a sociopath breeding ground.”

“I don’t know, a gang-banging drug slum?”

“At least with those people, they’re in it together. There’s solidarity. This place is all smiles and guffaws up until they throw you under the bus. Raising a family in a hive mind of convenient apathy and competitive dishonesty? Remind me never to visit.”

A knock came on the door. The higher-up in question entered.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “Sir, your twelve o’clock is here.”

A man rose from his seat and rapped his knuckles against the table.

“Great work, team. I’ll see you all later. Individually.”

He then stepped out the door, leaving five with nothing but a cold sweat.

“Do you have my tie?”

“Of course, sir.” The higher-up lackey provided his boss with a tie, gold in color. “I have to say, I never get tired of watching you with these new recruits. They keep burning out and we keep grabbing a fresh one from the assembly line.”

“I like the creativity of this batch, though, some real promise. But we can’t afford any more independent thinkers. Speaking of which, the girl.”

“What about her?”

“Make sure she isn’t here again.”

“Done. We can put an MBA in there I guess.”

“Where will we ever find one of those?” he laughed with a high-pitched chortle. “Just make sure the guy’s deep in debt. I like it when they’re subservient to the paycheck.”

He then stopped, realizing his current state of affairs. He undid his tie and tried the knot again. They resumed walking the corridors of his underworld.

“So, this meeting. Anything I should know before we go in?”

“You already know the father—”

“An overgrown child who makes decisions based on personal connections, abuse, and as little nuance as possible.”

“Yes, we are familiar with the father. His son, however, is smart. Watch out for that one.”

“Smart how?”

“Educated. I know you won’t think much of it at first, but he has a way of lulling you. You’ll see. Very quick.”

“And what about me? Am I not quick?”

The employee began stammering.

“Of course, sir, of course. As quick as they come. I meant nothing by it.”

“Relax, I was just kidding. Anything else?”

“Well…”

“Spit it out. We’re all friends here.”

“It’s a personal matter.”

“Oh?”

“I need your help. I need a few weeks’ pay in advance. Just to tide me over.”

“Then see a bank.”

“I can’t. I need more than they are willing to offer.”

“And you decided to come to me? I’m your employer, not your pusher.”

“Sir?”

“You live in a cocoon of bullshit and still you expect to emerge unscathed, like a little butterfly. Delusion is a full-time job, but I won’t pay you for it. Or did you forget our business model?”

“But sir—”

“We band together to take advantage of others. That’s why you’re here.”

“I know that, but we work together. I thought I was different.”

“You didn’t hear me, did you? That’s why you’re here.”

He stopped at the door guarded by two suited behemoths, semi-automatic pistols holstered at their side. He used their sunglasses to check his work. The gold tie was impeccably knotted.

“All of a sudden you need money. Do you think that’s by accident?”

The employee’s face went pale.

“You targeted me? Why?”

“You were due for a bonus, so I introduced you to that girlfriend of yours. She’s a pricey number, isn’t she? Fun like that doesn’t come cheap.”

The employee began trembling. The employer smiled.

“What, pussy caught your tongue? Chewing off a limb to save the body leaves an awful taste in the mouth, doesn’t it? Not that I would know.”

“You bastard.”

“I’ll take that as your resignation, then?”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck me? No, that’s life; always fucking itself, a perpetual motion machine of promise and ruin. Sorry you got caught in the gears.” He patted his assistant one last time on the shoulder.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a meeting to tend. These men will show you the way out.”

“You’re late.”

“Late or never. Which is better?”

“I guess we’ll find out, Mister—?”

“You can call me Mr. Gold,” he reached out his hand with a palm as dry as the Sahara. “Nice to finally meet you, Mr. Warren.”

“Please, call me Dennis. Allow me to introduce my son, Dr. Henry Warren.”

“A pleasure,” Mr. Gold said, reaching out to Henry.

“Likewise,” Henry replied, stone-faced and with a grip like a vise.

“Impressive handshake,” Mr. Gold remarked. “What brings you to our humble place of business.”

“We have been impressed with your results,” the elder Warren answered. “But as investors, we felt like we needed to do our due diligence. I guess you could say we wanted to see where the magic happens.”

“Of course,” Mr. Gold said. “As you know, we run operations that most would rather say can’t exist, let alone need to occur. But if you have a problematic person, entity, policy, lobby, legislator, whatever, our think-tank of experts comes up with an out-of-the-box solution.”

“Yes, yes we gathered,” Dennis said. “We’ve even used your services before. But we, my son and I, we’re really more interested in the details, the nitty-gritty. Could we see something like you’ve described in action?”

Mr. Gold cleared his throat.

“Again, I am always happy to put a smile on a client’s face. But despite your generous funding, I cannot divulge our proprietary information. I hope you can understand.”

“I don’t think you get it,” Henry interrupted. “We’re not asking.”

Mr. Gold took a moment to take-in the younger Warren.

“Where did you go to school again?”

“Harvard. You?”

“I didn’t,” replied Mr. Gold. “Self-educated. Remind me, what’s the motto of Harvard again?”

“Veritas.”

“That’s right. Veritas. Truth—something Harvard used to believe in.”

“Pardon me?”

“See, Henry, you strike me as everyone else I’ve met from these pompous institutions, eager to take credit for other people’s work. If you’re planning on impressing me, do what hundreds of millions do every day—work two jobs, get beat over the head for trying, find a library card and figure it out on your own. Then go back and do it again. And again. To no avail.”

“Excuse me, but—”

“You’re not excused. You come into my place of business and think you can walk the walk? You can barely talk. See, I live for this. I thrive on competition. It keeps me sharp. But you? You’re dull. The only thing your Harvard degree is good for is advertising that you’re willing to pay some gentrified scholar to declare yourself smart—an ivy indulgence provided by academic mercenaries eager to throw their educational weight to the highest bidder. Veritas? Don’t make me laugh. There is nothing true about you.”

“Hey asshole,” Henry said, adrenaline shaking the agitation in his voice. “Who do you think you are?”

“I’m the guy you came to see,” Mr. Gold replied. “I’m the guy you mock in the comfortable confines of your clubhouse because your too much of a coward to take me on directly. I’m the guy you pre-emptively attack just so you can sleep better under your blanket of insecurity.”

“How dare you? Don’t you know what I do?”

“You do office politics, kid. I do geo-politics. So why don’t you gather all your patrons around in a circle and pay them to come up with ways to pat you on the back. Academics—always finding reasons as to why they aren’t wrong. So unimpressive.”

Henry sat back down, suddenly calm. His father Dennis smirked.

“You see what I mean?” he said.

“I do,” Henry replied. “But I’m still not sure I can work with someone like this.”

“At least now we’re negotiating and not insulting,” Mr. Gold replied. “Still, good to get the blood boiling.”

“You are good at boiling blood. Even turned it into a trade. But my philosophy is to trust what I understand. And I do not understand why you want to leave this lucrative business for ours.”

Mr. Gold swallowed and smacked his tongue against his teeth.

“Philosophy is all well and good for those who have the luxury of thought. The sad truth about theoretical beatitudes conjured from genius, however, is that the only truth that matters is the simple inexorable fact that none of it can exist in a vacuum.

“We need each other. And if you control the resource, you control the conversation. Values are as wanton as leeches.”

“So, what can you offer us? Other than a forked-tongue lashing wit.”

“Something greater than a promise or a pledge,” Mr. Gold replied. “I offer you a dream made real: an American fealty to oligarchy.”

“Tell him about the idea you had,” Dennis prompted eagerly. “About implementing the concrete tiers.”

“The problem America keeps facing is the public. We need them to do what we want them to do, not what they want to do.”

“And how do we do that?”

“By using strongest sentiment mental metallurgy can forge: debt.

“The idea stems from systematizing their lives after they are tied to their occupation. Now, this indentured servitude is already done. Next, we need to subject healthcare to the same ballast. Remove the safety net. Make education so expensive that it’s impossible for regular people to pursue it without incurring shameful amounts of debt. Now we have our market: people so desperate that they become complicit. We use their anger and direct it. The only way to improve their standing is to adhere to the principle of letting the rich get away with what they want.”

“The concept sounds un-American,” Henry interjected.

“Don’t you know the history of this country?” Mr. Gold replied. “It’s quintessentially American.”

“Is that what you truly believe?”

“What I truly believe is that the best way to help people is to control them. We don’t teach market economics to laborers. We teach them to hate people who might take what they’ve grown accustomed to. It suits us better.”

“Until it doesn’t.”

“What people want is to be controlled. They just don’t want to know it. If we give people the illusion of choice, even if their every thought is manufactured, each desire preordained, their movements tracked, their lifespans calculated, their fears realized, their obedience rewarded, we will be united. The only thing we need is a golden ring, a carrot big enough, with enough gravitational pull to have them work together.”

“And that’s where we come in.”

“Yes.”

“But why do you want this job?”

“Honestly?”

“If we’re going to work together, I need to trust you,” Henry answered. “So yes, honestly.”

Mr. Gold took a deep breath.

“The trick to life is to learn not to care too much,” he said. “The pendulum has an up-swing only because of the down. Success is positioning yourself to be at the point of momentum. That’s why we are where we are.

“But what is the true enemy of good? Better. And I need something better. Because this, this life I’ve made for myself, this success, when you have everything, control everything, it all becomes…boring.

“But what’s the last, best spice in life? Other people. And if you can make other people suffer the realization that you are, for all intents and purposes, a god. And that well never gets old.”

Henry looked at his father, then back at Mr. Gold.

“So, that’s what you want?”

“Yes.”

The two men then smiled at each other.

“Me too.”