We weren’t in any particularly good place, just a parking lot without any cars. Part of the lot had been flooded and now resembled a pond. It was only a matter of time until A, high on soda, stripped out of his clothes and plunged in. The others encouraged him with maniacal hoots of laughter. I ducked over to untie my shoelaces, squeezed a tube of explosives from inside of one, and proceeded to attach it to the underside of A’s Toyota.
I waited for two hours to be out of sight before I dialed The Number from a phone booth. Two hours beforehand, A had started his car and burned to a crisp.
“It’s done,” I said into the payphone. This was difficult; the most difficult part of the whole operation. Each of us were questioned by the police, but nothing came of it. Of course it didn’t. They were incompetent fools.
Surveillance structures in Looptown (not a name; a homonym) are designed with sightlines in mind. This sounds obvious when thus stated, yet one would be surprised by how commonly it is overlooked—in other cities. The whole of Looptown is the work of a single architect. This has given the township a coherence of design rare in modern cities. Looptown is distinctive in other senses, too, being the brainchild of bureaucrats who gathered in parliament one afternoon and decided en masse that a new city was necessary. The king was pleased. Preparations began forthwith. An engineering competition was launched—anyway, not to go on. The point is, there was a point in Looptown’s emergence. Unlike the mass of historical cities, it was not formed through the step-wise action of historical time. It burst upon the planet all at once, complete and fully formed, much like Mr. Bean’s fall from the sky (for the careful observer, that show—and no other—has predicted the future in other ways, too).
Of all of Looptown’s many noteworthy architectural features, none is more immediately striking than the design of its surveillance structures: police station, prison, courthouse, post office, grocery store, and bank. Observed from aerial view, Looptown is a cube. Each structure is situated in a way that allows it complete and unobstructed sightlines over each of the cube’s six faces. The task was impossible—which is exactly why I had been given it; I, and not my dear eliminated A, had been the intended eliminee. In executing the mission, I had evaded my own death, switching it out with A’s. Would it matter? I hoped that it would not. Which is why, filled with hope, I made the circuitous trek out of the police station and walked with my back to their expanding glass wall, always aware of the 100 eyes upon my back, until the moment I occupied the vertex where the domain of the police station ends and the post office begins. It wasn’t a blind spot. It was an interference zone. Policemen and postal workers dried out their eyes in staring contests as I, meanwhile, picked up the receiver and dialed The Infernal Number.
Men have no regard for each other.
In Wes Craven’s B-movie extravaganza The Hills Have Eyes, two families have a stand-off. One is a normal family. One is a cannibal family. The Normals bust a tire and run out of gas in the middle of an endless desert. Soft sand and dry heat form mountains of grit that run a ring around the horizon. These hills have iron in them. The iron scuppers the radio reception, meaning they’re good and truly stuck. Really cooked—as both families know. Have known, each independent of the other, from the moment they stopped at a gas station and encountered a strange old man, saw a bloody handprint on a door, listened to warnings they’d no mind of heeding. Each of the six holds this knowledge within themselves while maintaining a false exterior for the others. They each of them front. Which is why, as families do, they will each of them rot, burn, and lose their minds, sustain bullet wounds and be stabbed to death, in a single night lose everything that they hold dear. The seventh, a baby named Catherine, meanwhile, had no idea any of this was happening, or that she lived with such utter fools.
The film doesn’t end. It only stops running. The last frame is of Doug Wood, the golden boy. Unable to pull the wool over his eyes any more, Doug plunges a knife into the cannibal father the way one plunges a clogged toilet bowl. Beneath him, out of frame, the father cannibal experiences ecstatic death. It’s hard growing up in a desert. It’s hard living with animals like an animal. It’s hard being ugly, maimed, malformed. It’s hard to be spurned, scorned, denied, expunged. It’s hard to eat baby Catherine, but it’s easier than the alternative, which is to starve.
Iron has magnetic properties.
QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQA3333 and it will, and it will lead me to the true North.
“Melissa,” I said to the spider, who turned in her web and wagged her face at me. “Do you think it would be wise or unwise for someone—not myself, of course—but someone else, to respond to radio messages not intended for them?”
The coffee pot pinged and I poured a large cup. I drank it in the living room with Melissa.
The telephone rang around noon: six hours too late. “You’re too late,” I intoned into the phone. Behind me, Melissa started up her mezzo-soprano scales and I cupped a hand over the mouthpiece to keep my interlocutor from overhearing. “It’s already over.”
Hardly had I said this when a fist pounded on the front door. Melissa’s voice broke on a note. I curled a hand over the pistol in my waistband and moved softly towards the door. The silhouette was a woman’s. I tucked myself flat against the wall and asked the stranger what she wanted.
She told me she needed to make a phone call. Her car had broken down—looking out the kitchen window later, I’d indeed see a Beetle with smoke rising from the hood—and she needed a mechanic. A breathless moment passed. Then I slipped the pistol back into my pants, yanked aside the chain, and welcomed the stranger into my house. Highly irregular behavior from a serviceman, but I had had queasy dreams the night before. Queasy dreams, whenever I have them, make me act queasy until the feeling goes away.
“Would you like some coffee?” I asked her when she had made the call. “Cereal? A sandwich?”
The woman politely declined each of these. She said I was very kind, but she had to be going. At the door she paused, perhaps pitied me, turned to kiss me a little on the lips. Her tongue had darted into my mouth before I had time to react, and then she was gone.
“Wow,” I said aloud, and spat out the pellet she had deposited against the inside of my cheek. When I’d unrolled the tight little paper tube and dried it out, I saw that there was an address on it. The address was my own.
“Melissa,” I asked Melissa. “Do you think I ought to take a shower or a bath?”
So I stood under warm flowing water and moved a loofah around me, trying to get clean. Melissa had picked my outfit for the day. She’d gone all out. Lime-green suit, bowler hat, stovepipe socks and brogues. The last time I’d worn all that I’d been getting married.
Which was fitting.
I hid the bomb in the cake. This was easy. A ten-layered wedding cake, to arrive intact at an event, has to be assembled on the premises. A team of bakers ferry the individual layers to the venue in a trademark iced truck and, when the time is right, carefully and with bated breath, stand each layer atop the other. Frosting and icing are added along with decorative bits and bobs.
I hung around the bakers and snatched a moment when their attention was diverted to slide the pipe bomb into the side of the vanilla cake. I covered the point of insertion with icing and, with my work having been accomplished, wandered further into the party. I was enjoying canapes and champagne in a far corner of the garden when the bride and groom cut into the wedding cake and sprayed blood and marzipan all over the place.
“It’s done,” I said into the payphone, and hung up. Then I was on the ground and vomiting, really heaving, my whole gut was in my mouth. The shadow of the man who had poisoned—of course, poisoned!—the precise canape that was served to me fell over the ground, and then I blacked out.
Phones were ringing off the hook. One phone would be answered, and another would start ringing and mixed up in it all were the murmurs of male voices. Low and officious—that is how the men sounded, as consciousness slowly returned to me. I couldn’t see the men, and this is how I knew there was a hood over my head. There was no feeling in my hands and feet. My butt was hurting on a hard metal chair. Leather straps kept me pressed to it.
“Light him up.”
A set of floodlights blazed on in my face and the hood was yanked off by a wire. I know that I screamed because there was the taste of blood in my throat; I’d bitten down on my tongue in the shock of the lights. There was a gibbering sound like turkeys at play.
“We have you. F__ Gott__, you are under arrest!” A voice spoke into a mic. I know that he was using a mic because there was a lot of feedback. Especially when he raised his voice and got all excited, and the mic exploded in a chainsaw of artifacts. Someone got him a new one.
He read me out my list of crimes. Everything I’d ever done, and some things that I hadn’t. While they had me, they must have thought, might as well pin some loose ends on me. It was policework, plain and simple. I didn’t hold any grudges on that account.
“Who sold me out?” I asked, when the recitation had ended and my cop captors asked if I’d any questions. A universal tittering went up.
“It was Melissa,” the man boomed into the mic.
Melissa, Melissa, Melissa, the others echoed.
Someone threw the switch and the straps fell off from around me. Immediately, I teetered, lost balance, fell thirty feet into an ice bath of piranhas.