The Long Journey, Part Eight

Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five   Part Six   Part Seven

It was early in the afternoon. I thought about trying to make conversation with the apricot, but how to proceed? Did he have any idea about Moof’s operation, or even his occupation? I tried to remember if my old friend had mentioned any details in front of this thickness… no, he hadn’t. He hadn’t spoken openly until we were on the bikes, by the river. So probably the apricot was hired help, although Moof’s reticence could just as easily have been an acknowledgement of the historic simplicity of turning vehicles into recording devices. Still, I decided to avoid the awkwardness inherent in engaging a foreign stranger, that terrible feeling after “do you speak English?” when you’re never really sure how truthful they’ve been. Instead, I looked out the window and tried to get ideas from the countryside. Mostly, I was unsuccessful.

The thing about any good intelligence work is this: it is reliant on people. Not just human sources, or HUMINT as the old acronymical stalwarts insist, but also people who have no idea they are the targets of deep observation and analysis. A Good Dog hast to get in there, read the papers, get drunk and go to church, listen to schoolteachers and their little charges, hear the jokes as well as the political propaganda. If we’d spent a little more time learning the humor of the Soviets… well, it wouldn’t have happened any faster, but we might’ve saved a lot of money.

I knew all this. I knew the right course of action would have been:

A)   Tell the apricot to drop me downtown and take off.

B)   Secure hotel rooms at two different hotels, on opposite sides of the river.

C)   Locate a bar.

and then stay for a couple of weeks. But I knew the contents of my wallet, where the company had deposited my cash expense account, and I knew the contents of my checking account. I could stay anonymous as long as the cash held out, but once I used a card of some kind I was On Record, and I didn’t know enough to be On Record just yet. Top of that, I didn’t trust Moof Curtis and his preposterous promise of ten thousand a week. Last thing I wanted was an unfunded vacation this far from home. Besides, I’d told the girlfriend I’d only be two days in Buffalo. Jesus, I had to decide what to do about the girlfriend.

So instead of ingratiating myself with the local gentry, as they say, I sat in the back of the car as it rumbled along, and I stared out the window and didn’t even collect information from the one human available. I popped a pill and chased it with my last small bottle from the inbound flight. I really hated traveling.

 

I tried to piece together what Moof was up to. He’d definitely played me, now that I had a chance to stop and think about it. He’d talked about old times to establish a connection, kept flipping me on conversation points and then physical locations to keep me off-balance, and pushed all of my personal buttons concerning politics, devotion, and Right. He even fucked me right in my well-documented frustration about ineffective policy. Jesus, I was supposed to be there to get answers, and he’d flipped me into a job interview where the only possible result was me as an accessory to federal conspiracy. I even knew he was a hustler, and I practically cried when he touched me. “Tell me what you need, Brother…” Embarrassing. This was beyond textbook stuff. He was good.

The landscape outside the window, as we moved out of the city and toward the airport, took on a zoetrope quality. I spread my fingers against the window and tried to slow it down, to peer through the slots and see the individual frames. Pick it apart. Do your job. Figure it out.

And then the paranoia started. He must have known I’d see through his game, right? His bugout code was BACKGAMMON? Seriously? He staged our initial meeting in that office that wasn’t even his… why? To show me how easy it was to alter perception, to point out to me how easy I am to fool. To establish his dominance in his own playground. Did the bike vendor know we were coming? Oh fuck, were the bikes bugged? I thought over everything I’d said… had I actually agreed to do this?

No, I told myself. Everything I’ve said so far can be explained away as an old friend having pity on the deranged fantasies of a frustrated operative. Nothing serious. Nothing, well, treasonous.

Ten thousand dollars a week. That was some scratch. Forty thousand a month, half a million in a year, and he’d described a two-year commitment. A million. The risks were high, but what he was asking for didn’t warrant that kind of payday. Was he truly trying to help an old friend? Trying to make amends for all the times he’d screwed me one way or another? Trying to reward me so grotesquely as to ensure my loyalty? Maybe he couldn’t count on me to be a Champion of the Little Guy in a region I didn’t know, for a people I couldn’t care less about. Maybe things were going to get worse before they got better, and he needed to know I would stick. I had to admit it was a smart investment.

I made a decision. Facts:

  1. Moof Curtis wasn’t playing me level. He was a lying shitbag spying lowlife who (professionally) convinced people to finger their sisters; there was no way he was doing Correct & Right here, not even if he was hopelessly in love with large-breasted Native twins who felt okay about sharing a man.
  2. My prospects were shady at best. I should walk away. But at the very least, I needed to watch my back, trust no one, and be prepared to bugout on ten minutes’ notice. Pretty much Standard Operating Procedure.
  3. As a mid-forties freelancer with limited assets and no health insurance, I could use the money. I would really like to just build furniture for a living. And lately, there was blood in the toilet. Mental note to get that checked.
  4. If by some remarkable stroke everything Moof had told me was level, this was a great chance to do things the right way and deliver a colossal finger to Da Man. Which would be hilarious.

 

I would dip my toe in the water. I would bite the bait.

 

It took a lot longer than I thought, but as the sun was setting the apricot pulled through an open gate on the south side of the airport. He parked just under the concourse and got out, retrieving my carry-on from the trunk, where it had been for the duration of my visit. I poured out of the back seat, a little more liquid than I’d expected: probably the result of mixing the bottle with the pill. I’ll never learn, I suppose.

The same suit that had greeted me was at my side again. He hoped my visit had been satisfactory; I hoped he’d been in the airport bar. We chuckled and he pointed and I slapped and grumbled my way across the wet tarmac to the airstairs of the waiting short-hop plane. No one asked to look in my carry-on, and no one cared to look at my passport, which was a terrible likeness anyway. The rain had stopped.

 

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The Long Journey, Part Seven

Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five   Part Six

The river was delightful if not sublime, and we moved on our bicycles with the current. I had so many questions. The tradecraft alone could have taken all afternoon. There was one question predominant in my mind.

“Tell me. How does this not end with two black helicopters and twenty guys fast-roping with the express intent of locking me away for a very long time, or preferably, double-tapping me for the Good of the Country?”

Moof Curtis thought about this for three full revolutions of his pedals, which is to say, not very long. “The only thing I can promise is that the helos won’t be black,” he said. “That is so two-thousands. But seriously, I have a cover for you, plausible deniability of course. I’m teaching a course in PoliSci at the university. For political correctness, we can’t use real country names or scenarios. You’ll be contracted to provide source materials for case management, hypotheticals involving fictional country and city names, memos and supporting documents. There’s only so much I can pay through university accounts for this, so you’ll be getting some sources of income that will surprise you.”

“Such as?”

“Look, just make sure you pay taxes on all of it, okay? I can get you an accountant, believe me. Just say the word.”

“I do okay with TurboTax.”

“Seriously? Dude, I am going to take the word as given. My guys will be in touch next February.”

“So you’re saying if I ever get hauled up in front of Johnny Law, all I have to do is claim I’m a writer supplying hypothetical material to a Political Science professor? And given both our backgrounds, I’m supposed to claim ignorance of my employer’s secondary income?”

“Primary income, truth be told. But yeah, I’ll send you a few letters. You answer with a few letters. Establish a paper trail. Oh—important—use FedEx. There’s an existing deal with USG. We’ll work it out. You’ll have a solid paper trail to back up your involvement. What I do with your material is up to me. Your shitty little life doesn’t have to change.”

“Hey.”

 

“Sorry.”

We pedaled along. He came to a stop a few meters from the vendor’s stand. “Look, I’m trying to make a difference here, okay? I’ve been here for a full tour and I just re-upped. I sit in the south, just waiting for a threat that’s never going to come, and I talk to the people and realize how ineffective we are in bringing them into the world after so many years in the dark. I’ve put assets in place, I’ve closed sales, but I can’t do everything. I need someone I can depend on, a fresh voice that can’t sound like me. I can’t go to the embassy, the foreign service officers are too stuck on nobility and rule of law. I can’t directly engage DoD without risking increased funding for equipment and salaries to the local military caste, which is counter-productive. I can’t start with corporations, because they have more analytical ability than the public-sector pukes and they’ll see through the level of subterfuge I can push out.”

“And I’m guessing company channels aren’t especially productive?”

“They’re too focused on the southern threat. They’ve never understood that the best way to protect American interests is to promote, and trust in, the basics of what we believe. Self-determination. Maximum suffrage. The right to earn a buck and keep as much of it as possible. The fucking Enlightenment, not the Inquisition. Short-term gains have dictated local manipulations which always come back to fuck us. See: Afghanistan.”

He didn’t have to tell me.

“What’s the bugout?” I only asked because every operation needed a bugout plan, a signal and course of action in which it was Every Man for Himself because the op had gone to shit. I had only needed to bugout once, and it had involved Moof Curtis. I’d never had the chance to ask him about how it had worked out for him, though I assumed he’d done at least as well as me. I’d been told to balance my body weight on my fingertips against a rough concrete wall. I’d buckled conveniently under the pressure, as any civilian would, and spilled my guts about how I felt about the political situation. After a few other indignities that I can only attribute to the personalities in question, I’d been dumped. But alive.

Moof thought about this far too little for my taste. I wanted him to really value what I was asking, feel my pain, know the danger. But the truth was this: he was a company man and I was not. Fair enough. “The bugout is BACKGAMMON.” he said. “It’s up to you to design your network, but I can guarantee a certain amount of company support in documents, et cetera.”

“BACKGAMMON. The game of kings. A combination of luck and skill to get all your pieces home. Could you be a little more obvious?”

“Well there’s no chess metaphor. When chess ends, the king is dead and no one cares who’s left on the battlefield.”

“We’ve certainly been there.”

Moof faced me and put his hand on the back of my neck. I let him. I looked in his eyes and felt the years roll along. This man, this man, who I knew I would bleed for. Had bled for. It didn’t matter how he held me. We saw each other, how we’d suborned life itself. I saw heartache, filial insufficiency, the disproportionate nature of the burden we place on the young to carry the flag until they’re old before their time. God knows what he saw in me, and I don’t believe in God. Tears welled in his eyes. I couldn’t believe them, I assumed they were part of the pitch, but I let him hold me when almost anyone else would have fared unfavorably.

“We’re going to do great things,” he said.

“Tell me what you need, Brother, and I’ll do what I can.”

He scribbled out some basics on the envelope he’d used to hook me, and put me in the car. The apricot drove me, leaving Moof to joke with the bike vendor, who was laughing like a schoolgirl seeing a meal ticket.

 

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The Long Journey, Part Six

Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five

Moof sat behind the driver and didn’t wear a seat belt. He sat lazily, and I imagined he was waiting for my internal monologue to end, but in truth he was not the kind of guy who waited for

“God, remember that government class senior year of high school?”

“Mr. Caufield, was it? No, Collett. Yeah, we did Model Congress.”

“Fifth Period was the House, Sixth Period was the Senate, and Collett was the pres. Everyone had to generate two bills, and you got an automatic A if one of your bills became law. Remember? There was instant crazy competition, lobbying outside of class time… we learned more about politics in a week than we would have in a semester of lectures.”

“I was the Senator from North Dakota. I thought it would help me keep a low profile, I wouldn’t have to talk so much.”

“But we all generated bills. There must have been ten scenarios to legalize pot. Here we are thirty years later, and it might actually happen.”

“Crazy.”

“Has it ever struck you, with the possible exception of Collett’s class, how unprepared we were for our future selves?”

 

I looked out the window.

 

“We both ended up in theater,” I said. “A little tangential, maybe, but not terrible training.”

“Maybe not. Oh, we’re here.”

We couldn’t have gone more than a mile, and in front of us was the river. And six mountain bikes for rent. “Beautiful day, good company, easy ride along the river,” Moof explained. “We keep moving at an easy pace, no one will hear us, and we’ll be impossible to follow. Bikes are a fairly new thing here, socially, so we might get some stares but we’ll generally be dismissed. Kind of like homeless people in Manhattan. Promise we won’t do anything to endanger your fucked up lower half. Let’s go.”

He gave the driver some instructions through the window and worked the transaction with the vendor. I was impressed with his language skills, though I didn’t understand a word; he spoke quickly, hit consonants confidently, and had the man laughing within two minutes. Moof Curtis had a gift, sure as shit. We mounted the bikes and gently pushed off, Moof holding to the river.

The payoff began almost immediately.

“So, what we’re talking about is a limited engagement, couple of years at most. You’re going to create a narrative that causes capital to flow here, where we want it. The trick is, you can never explicitly reveal the entire narrative. It’s got to be clues, individual moves that lead the reader into conclusions.”

“You want me to show them what they want to see, and get them to act on very limited data, is that it?”

“Exactly. It can’t just be raw data, although you do have to give me some points that can be verified. It can’t be full analysis, because then we run the risk that the action taken is too comprehensive. It just has to be a steady trickle of information, triggering a steady trickle of money. Which contributes in real time to the public.”

I wanted to see if he would say it. “Who’s the reader? You’re talking about ripping off USG, aren’t you?”

“Stealing from Da Man, yep. Although there is already aid flowing here, given our geopolitical position, so it’s more a case of redirecting and intensifying the trickle, rather than draining the reservoir.” Apparently Moof had thought through the moral and legal implications of defrauding his employer, and come up justified.

“You don’t have confidence in our foreign aid policy here?”

At this he chuckled. “What foreign aid policy? Some very good people at the embassy do a lot of careful work and push paper up the food chain with recommendations. That gets pushed to a regional desk. Further pushes, until all that careful work is one box in a spreadsheet. Then your elected representatives, who know that ‘foreign affairs’ gets weighted at around 4% in surveys about what voters care about, horse trade around issues that have nothing to do with this country.”

“Each push along the way dilutes the value of the report,” he continued. “And each push takes the information closer to the source of the money, but further from someone who knows the ground. At the end of the budget debate, five hundred thousand for science training gets earmarked for promoting Judeo-Christian preschools, in a country that’s already 96% on the side of Christ. That’s our standard operating procedure, and it’s no way to run a railroad. Oh, let’s shoot up here.”

Moof Curtis slid off the bike and crossed the street to a grassy slope. I followed along, still confused.

“How is my reporting supposed to be more effective than existing work coming out of the embassy and the intelligence community?”

“Your stuff will get better play, don’t worry about that. I can guarantee within three months, you’ll be the go-to source. Existing reporting is very careful about over-committing, they recognize perception for what it is, so they qualify everything. Example: we are pushing these bikes up a hill, toward the cemetery, to maintain some operational quiet while we talk about wholesale fraud. Fact. Anyone observing us right now would simply report ‘two subjects, possibly male, of unknown citizenship, seen pushing bicycles through grass, on an incline, north.’ They’re just never going to commit. They’re too career-minded. They don’t want to be wrong. In your case, you have the passion of conviction, because you know how the story ends. Because you’re writing it.”

“What happens to the money that gets diverted?”

“That’s gonna be out of your area for now. But I’ll tell you this. We’re going to steer money to far better places than it’s going now.” I found it appropriate that we now had a superior view of the river, and that Curtis was leaning against the wall of a cemetery. In nearly thirty years, we always seemed to be among the dead, with a clear vision of what needed to be done.

“Now, pay attention, double-oh-seven,” Moof said, assuming a British accent just for effect. “Look, I want to bring you in, but… I have assets to protect. Let me just say this: right now there are four major sources of money. The diaspora lobbies Congress and State takes their watered-down intentions and spends what they’ve sucked out on dreamy ideas like ‘promoting democracy’. You can imagine how that plays around here. Department of Defense is still winding down their logistics aid from the earthquake back in the early 90s, but considering who’s on the southern border they want to keep their fingers in. They call this ‘force preparedness’ and it means keeping key figures greased in the local military. They encourage a bit too much fascism for my taste, but then I was always a rebel. Then there’s the global economy, the corporate presence. They have so much money, they just throw it this way on speculation. Just in case a business opportunity arises in a country with almost no resources, they want to keep regulations minimal. Massive ecology damage to clean up here, mind you, but they just want to maintain the status quo, and in the meantime, depress wages if they can.”

“I imagine that leaves the company.”

“Yes. Given the southern threat, we’ve developed a couple of listening posts, monitoring for underground tests, heavy vehicle movement, that sort of thing. Very little development of human sources, typical short-sighted over-reliance on tech, but in the ridiculous scenario of a large armored force coming north, we’ll be in a great position to say I Told You So.”

“What changes when you and I fool everyone into a new utopia?”

“It’s gonna be great.”

“I need buy-in, Moof. Plus I need to know which direction to send the narrative.”

“Okay, well, in rough terms, State will focus on local politicians. That’s what they’re doing now, and they’re reasonably good at it. DoD will find themselves donating to and employing the poor. The Corporates will beg to develop infrastructure and build wages, and Your Humble Servants will find themselves funding the new middle class.” He got back on his bike and gestured toward a path that led to another road. I followed suit.

“So you want me to trick everyone, possible exception State, into doing the opposite of what they’re doing now?”

“More or less.”

“Tall order.”

“You. You are good. This is why you make the big bucks.”

We coasted down the path and back onto the riverside road. The course seemed to be back to the car, which meant Moof Curtis was unilaterally closing the open conversation. Had something spooked him? Or was he just not willing to reveal much more?

“You play chess?”

“Yeah,” I laughed. “Not well, I generally lose, but I know the rules.”

“Chess is the only ancient game that doesn’t involve chance,” he said solemnly. “There’s no dice, no cards, no wheel to spin. It’s pure strategy. Outlawed by a lot of governments over the years, not least because the King is the weakest piece on the board. Now imagine a game of chess where you stop trying to kill the other guy, and just preserve as many pieces as you can.”

His voice dropped a little. “Especially the pawns.”

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The Long Journey, Part Five

Part One     Part Two     Part Three     Part Four

Moof Curtis settled down and pulled out a pen, then an envelope. He scribbled for a while and then slid it across to me. It was like walking down Sixth Avenue when a sudden rainstorm catches the women of New York off guard in the spring. All those sundresses, suddenly clinging, telling at least part of the real story, revealing more and yet denying honesty a gutter airing; you know you’re a jerk if you look but the temptation is just too much. I tried to let it be. I really did.

 

Exhibit1

I snorted. “How is this any different? This is pretty much company playbook, except for the fat salary you’re offering. There’s got to be more.” Curtis nodded and took back the envelope. More scribbles. Another slow slide over.

 

Exhibit2

 

 

“Okay, again, I’m following, though I don’t see…” and my finger rested on the PERSONAL CUT, “how this is going to be justified to HR at the level you’re describing.” Curtis just smiled. My eyes moved to the gap in his description. He drew the ten letters firmly, and circled them.

 

 

Exhibit3

I laughed out loud. He continued his Cheshire Cat act. “First of all, that’s a job I am not qualified to do as a freelancer. Second of all, that’s not a job I would rate, or want for that matter, as a manager. Third of all, I don’t even speak the language around here, and fourth of all, there must be twenty or thirty people who, if they’re not already doing that job, they could be.”

“You done exploring the impossible? Can we move on to the probable?

“Sure, why the hell not?”

“Fourth of all, there are three people already doing the job, and they’re not my old, dependable, creative buddy. Third of all, I don’t need you to speak the language around here. I got guys for that. You want a toe? I can get you a toe. I probably don’t even need you around here very much, except for basic research, the feel of the place, atmosphere. Second of all, you won’t be management, you’ll be feeding management just like you fed that craggy professor. And first of all, I wouldn’t have flown you out here if I didn’t think you could do the job, and I don’t want a salary guy. I want my piece of shit, broken as fuck, old freelance friend that I know better than he knows himself.”

“What are you trying to do here? How are you meeting your numbers? What—“

Wait. That, right there. I felt my heart rate notch up, my vision narrowed a little. My scalp tingled. I knew I was safe, but sitting in that chair I realized my back was to the door. The least I could do was plant my feet flat on the floor and slide to the edge of the seat. “I wouldn’t have flown you out here if I didn’t think you could do the job.”

“Human Resources flew me out here, Moof. They’re going to want some kind of an answer, and this sort of thing doesn’t fit in a two-page memo. You’re talking about, well, thinking outside the box.”

“Far outside the box. I told you I was innovating, building for the future. Think of this as incubating a test bed for future marketing platforms. Same but different. Wholly owned subsidiary meets spinoff. The Royale With Cheese. ”

“Okay, now I’m lost.”

“Yeaaaaah, that’s ‘cause now I’m fucking with ya a little. Let’s get out of here. I know a place we can talk. Drop the euphemisms.  Get a little exercise.” And with that, he picked up the two beer cans and the envelope, brushed by me, and opened the door. I started after him, through the room with the empty desks.

When I was a kid, we were told that if the Soviets ever launched, there would be some kind of electrical zap or something, and people… soft tissue… would just instantly incinerate. There was a TV movie, The Day After, and it didn’t have a happy ending. They assigned it as homework, and so many kids were traumatized they had to have a teach-in or some such to talk about it. They were afraid we’d commit suicide or something. Some of us just internalized it until it after high school.  I only mention it because those empty desks looked as I’d imagined. Like everyone had been right in the middle of something, and then, zap. Technically, of course, everything would then be consumed by fire, but in that moment…

“You’re telling me your own conference room isn’t secure?”

“That’s not my conference room. I don’t even have a conference room.”

What?

“I just borrowed this place. It’s an architectural consultancy or some shit. I paid the shift manager three hundred bucks and told him to take the whole crew out for birthday lunch. It has to be somebody’s birthday, right? Anyway, they’re due back soon. Let’s motor.”

I stopped in the doorway.

“Perception, bucko. That’s all reality is. Better get used to it, because it’s going to be your job pretty quick. I can already tell you’re going to take the red pill and see how deep a rabbit hole we can dig.”

We got in the car. Was this what perception was all about? Perpetually questioning everything around you, living one lie after another? What must it be like, existing in a network of mirages and sleight-of-hand? Could I really be sure ordinary life was all that different? The apricot was behind the wheel soon enough, and we rolled out silently past ten or twelve men in white shirts, just back from lunch. Would they wonder about the spilled beer in their conference room, or would they just wipe it up and get on with the day? They looked happy, I thought.

 

 

 

.

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The Long Journey, Part Four

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

I knew he was being overly dramatic to bait me into something I wouldn’t like. Nobody earns ten thousand dollars a week. Plenty of people find a way to make it, but nobody earns it.

I had been standing since the accident with the beer can, but now I needed to sit down. I sat in the next chair in line at the conference table. Was I intentionally putting distance between us? Probably I just didn’t want to sit in the wet chair. “Ten thousand bucks is a hefty payday,” I said as smoothly as I could. “Paid weekly… pretty soon you’re talking about real money. We are talking about real money, right Moof? This isn’t more of your ‘reality equals perception’ crap?”

He smiled broadly, knowing his bait had at least been sniffed. “What’s worth doing is worth doing for money, Bud. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“My first question is—“

“Third question.”

 

I saw his point but ignored it. “—how legal is this?”

“Boopy. I’m insulted by your question. How legal. Oh, my.” At this, he sniffed and wiped a mock tear. “How legal? In whose eyes? Don’t get me started on the arbitrary nature of legality!”

“So I’m guessing not very legal. I’m only asking because I want to be able to bail out honestly. When I’m tied to a chair being waterboarded while someone uses a … a… a… Leatherman on my scrotum, I want to be able to honestly say I have no idea what the hell kind of scam my old friend Moof is running.”

 

“Wow.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Vivid.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

“You should be a writer.”

 

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”

“A writer making almost ten grand a week,” he said, elbows on the table and chin in hands. “That’s Stephen King. That’s Carl Hiassen. That’s Harry Potter—J.K. Rowlands or whatever. That’s that reclusive dude… Salinger. That’s Salinger-level scratch.”

“Salinger’s dead.”

“No wonder he didn’t return my calls. Good thing I have you.”

 

Goddamn Moof Curtis. The master of charm school. Why was I even still here? How did he know how to hook me so well? Was this what a woman feels like when a man tries to get her undressed? “You’re a master baiter. I feel sorry for every woman you’ve ever been with,” I said.

He laughed. “Speaking of, do you remember in high school, when I got you to come over to Michelle’s house to help us wash her car? The five-liter Mustang?”

Yeah. Michelle had worn a bikini top. Yellow. She had big California 80s hair and firm, pert breasts. She and Moof had been dating all senior year. She always smelled like sunscreen. “Sure,” I mumbled. “So what?”

“Remember when we got you to work on the interior? You got so into detailing the car. You wanted to impress her, I think. Anyway, eventually we stopped working and went to find some beer in her dad’s house, remember? And you kept working on the car, because you didn’t like the idea of stealing beer from Michelle’s dad. We came out like a half hour later, and you were polishing the ArmorAll on the tires. We didn’t have any beer.”

 

“Yeah. I remember. So what?”

 

“Well, cowboy, actually Michelle and I spent all that time fucking. Just balls-out banging. She was a horny girl and wanted it all the time. I think the whole Beer Quest was just an excuse to get us into the house for a threesome. But you were so concerned with the legality of a couple of beers. And she was sixteen anyway, so even consensual double penetration would’ve amounted to rape. How would you have squared that with your legal code? Nope, I guess it’s best things turned out the way they did. Me slamming her on the dining room table and you on your knees, rubbin’ on tires.”

 

I let it sit for a minute. He was grinning like a madman.

 

“You’re the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever known.”

“I know, I know, I should’ve shot video. Then we could at least be reliving the moment.”

 

I got up to leave. “Look, in light of our friendship—“

“Let me ask you this, was the war legal?”

“In light of our friendship—“

“When we drop an artillery shell on a wedding party, is that legal?”

“Moof, stop.”

“When we pay the families five hundred, or a thousand dollars per dead guest, how about then, does that make it legal-ish? If the people we’re fucking don’t have any recourse, don’t have any lawyers, don’t have any humanity in our eyes, do we get to declare legality?”

“Stop it. I get it, the world is a fucked up place.”

“You want the truth? Please. You can’t handle the truth. Let’s not stop at international. How about domestic? Do I need to mention banks? Drug companies? Oil companies? Hell, how about Congress? Does legality only get defined by the people who can afford to shape the court? What about history? The French revolutionaries were the legitimate government of France, and they started lopping off heads. The Iranians. Stalin. North Korea. Legality is pretty damn subjective, don’t you think?”

“Please tell me you’re not going to go full Hitler here.”

 

He was in strong form now. “Here’s a little ditty I think you’ll know. It’s a little passage I got memorized. On great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it.”

“Thomas Jefferson.”

“We’re sitting in a country where twenty bucks a day is living large, and I’m offering you ten thousand a week. How legal? Remember the Serb? What was it you said? One, two, three, four, I declare a Thumb War? Remember the Serb? How fucking legal was that?”

 

I could feel the hook set in my cheek. Jefferson also said “To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

But I had to look that up later, and I had forgotten that he said those words in defense of actions taken by his commanding general, who was secretly in the pay of Spain, in addition to being a first class dissembling asshole.

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The Long Journey, Part Three

Part One

Part Two

My attention was diverted for an unacceptably long time. Somehow, I just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there was nothing in the conference room to deal with spills. My eyes shot over the details: table, chairs, phone in the center, the bland little cabinet, the television and… was that a VCR? One terrible fern, all alone and shoved in a corner, leaning sadly toward the doorway because there were no windows. The beer puddled on the table. I thought about moving the fern to the edge of the table, to bulldoze the beer into its pot. Is it possible for plants to get drunk? Better not to get its hopes up.

Moof had been staring at me as I contemplated. “You,” he said, pointing a thin finger at the dark stain on my crotch, “have pissed yourself. And you’re going to smell like Miller for a while, which will just reinforce the perception.”

I thought he would find this hilarious, but he seemed sober. “I probably shouldn’t have been rolling a warm beer can around,” I said. “Sorry for the mess; you got a towel or something in that cabinet?”

“So this is what I’m saying. What do people want to see? What do they not want to see? And most importantly, how will they act based on what they see, based on their perception? Their perception of very limited data?” This last with another pointed finger. “If we go into the street right now, people will see two men in casual work clothes strolling along, talking. We probably look and move like Americans to them, but already they’re starting to make assumptions. Let’s say we go into a restaurant, and the host notices the smell of beer, my breath and your pants. We know neither one of us is drunk, but what about his perception? Two Americans, smelling of beer, in the middle of the day? And one of them with a wet crotch? Nobody in this town is going to seat us. We’d be lucky if he didn’t call the police.”

“This is all pretty standard stuff, Moof.”

“Okay, fine. Tell me again why you’ve come all this way?”

“Human Resources wants to know why you’re able to meet your numbers when no one else has been able to, given the resources and business environment.”

“Right. That’s your perception. Based on very limited data. But again, do they really care about how? Does it really matter that it’s me getting results? You said yourself, no one even told you it was me running this office, and I saw the surprise all over you when you saw me. So I’m going to tell you that all they want to see are results in line with what they expect. Because they’ve seen better, they’ve sent you out here to find out why, but even that is a farce, because what they want to see is a two-page memo from you explaining it and offering three bullet point recommendations and an alternate. And that’s a report no one is ever going to read. It’ll just get attached to the travel orders and filed. Everyone’s boxes checked, and back to normal.”

It was hard to figure him. I felt a little like the fern.

“Fine, perception, expectations. What am I supposed to write in this memo that no one is ever going to read?”

“You’re creative,” Curtis said. “Dream something up. Make sure to use the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘synergy’ and ‘effective resource controls’.”

“I can’t just make up some bullshit. The company’s paying, and a cash expense account to boot.”

“Oh, I think you can do it. I know you can do it. Remember that oral interview assignment?”

I blanked. I looked up and to the left. I couldn’t—

“The assignment was to interview someone in the business, someone established, cold-call them and get them to do a five.”

He was talking about college. “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, well that was different.”

“What was the name of your interview subject? Do you remember?”

I had to smile. “She was female, and in her fifties, and a designer.”

“You don’t remember because you fabricated every bit of that assignment. You did the tiniest bit of research. You guessed the professor might check up, but she couldn’t check on everyone, and the most time she’d be willing to spend was about five minutes. You guessed if you set up two or maybe three true/false things to verify, she’d assume the whole thing was legit. And you did the whole thing from our dorm room the day before it was due, and you were absolutely fucking right. You gave her what she wanted to see.”

“Well, there was no Internet then.”

“Oh, please. That just makes it easier.”

“And it was just a class. And it was an unfair, stupid assignment.”

Moof Curtis smiled. “True. This is bigger. We’re going to make a real difference in this district. It’ll be fair, not stupid, and it’s going to pay you just under ten thousand dollars a week.”

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The Long Journey, Part Two

Part One

Moof was trying to suppress the grin with a lockjaw grimace. “Why’d they send you?” he asked rhetorically. “Because SOME damn fool ACCUSED YOU of being the BEST!

And with that he brought his right arm up to an arm-wrestling pose and flexed his biceps. The grin came out. “Huh? Heh?” I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t even get the joke for another five minutes.

“I’m a little surprised to see you, Moof.”

“I know, right? What a crazy world. Step on in here and have a seat. Travel okay? Car ride okay?”

“Can’t complain, I suppose.”

“Well, you could complain, but who’d give a shit?”

We sat in the tweedy chairs alongside the table. Not directly across from each other; Curtis sat at the end and I sat across the corner from him. Or at least, that was the initial pose. He shot out of the chair almost as soon as he’d touched down, like he’d sat on a tack. “Wow, it is good to see you!” He turned toward a bland cabinet. Everything in the room looked like it had been picked up from the as-is section of IKEA, except the Miller High-Life which now appeared. He sat back down and popped his.

I stared at him.

“I know, right? Of all the gin joints, in all the towns.”

“Mind telling me what’s going on here?”

He stared back. “That’s your assignment, after all.” I nodded. “Well tough tittay. You have to visit first. Drink your beer and let’s ketchup, mou-tard.”

“Lettuce Beef Friends, is that what you’re saying?”

“Woo fucking hoo. Now we’re synchronized. How’d you like my man Boyd?”

“Was he the one at the plane, or the one that drove? Pretty boring.” I held the unopened can of beer in my hand and rolled it along my thigh. It was warm. “What are you doing here? I thought you had moved on to academia or something. ‘Swat I heard, anyway. Professor Curtis.”

“A part-time adjunct position, you could say. Limited student body, you could say. Plenty of time for research sabbaticals and extracurricular activities, and, what am I looking for…”

“Intramural sports, you could say.”

Curtis laughed. “Intramural sports, yeah. Yeah. Speaking of, your hip still shot? Knee? Was it the left?”

“Right.”

“Right knee, or…?

“No, you’re right, the left knee, and the hip is still shot.”

“Well, serves you right for giving up sales.”

“Speaking of sales…”

“Oh for CHRISSAKES. Relax, would you! It’s old times and lullabyes! We go back! Way Back! Why can’t we just sit here and drink beer and shoot the shit? What’s the matter with you? Where’s the old geekface nerdatron? I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”

I rolled the beer. He smiled a little, that winning grin that always closed a sale.

“Not that anyone ever expects…”

“Moof, I always liked you. I did. Even when you stole my skateboard.”

“I borrowed that skateboard.”

“You stole it. Where’d it go? Where’d it end up? Not at my house.”

“I think I traded it for weed.”

“This is my point. You always have a hustle. I always fall for it. Everyone does. HR sent me out here because you’re meeting your numbers but they can’t figure out how. If I knew it was you, I could’ve saved a flight. I would’ve just told them you had some kind of hustle going on, and then I would’ve asked what braindead asshole thought it was a good idea to let you run a sales office, much less one more than about thirty feet from home. Now I’m out here and you’re going to get me fucked because I always liked you and I’m going to be in some kind of position where I’m going to get fucked. And then you’re just going to walk away golden. Because that’s what you fucking do.”

He leaned forward. “You gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?”

“GODDAMMIT.”

“Look, I’m sorry. You started talking ‘positions’ and ‘getting fucked’ and I got all excited. I earned everything I ever got, including your goddamn skateboard. I’m here in Analbeads because they thought I could get the numbers up, and I did. I’m excelling. I’m motivating. I’m delivering in ways they can’t even see yet, because I am building for the future. And I’m doing it on budget. Fast, good, and cheap.”

“Nobody does anything fast, good, AND cheap.”

“Think about this for a minute. What do they want to see? What do they not want to see? Do you think they really care about how or why, or for that matter, who?”

“I think you mean whom.”

“No, no, I think you’re wrong. In this case it’s who. Because I’m not talking about a specific person, I’m literally saying who could be anybody and they don’t care whom. You going to open that beer?

“Fine.” And I popped the top, and with a loud pfft  it sprayed up, foamed over, and the unmistakable smell of American Stank spilled over my hand, on the table, and all over my lap. Curtis didn’t look surprised, and made no effort to get me a towel.

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