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Fuckers,” I whispered to myself as I looked at the small pristine business card held lightly between my fingers. On it were the words:
“Don’t you hate it when this happens?”
It was printed in a rather fetching raised font, something like Arial Black, or maybe even Charcoal. In the bottom right-hand corner, inexplicably, I noticed a phone number.
“Fuckers,” I repeated, feeling like there was just too much new information to take in, and my brain had temporarily crashed. “Fuckers,” I added quietly, after a pause.
I looked around, but everything else seemed pretty much the same as it had the night before. The advertising billboards smeared with a huge poster for Chocolate SleepAwake—a good-night-wake-you-up drink, which sent you to sleep gently, then woke you up a bit later at exactly the time it said on the tin. There had been a court case the year before when a woman claimed she’d bought a tin of eight-ten, but it had woken her up at seventeen minutes past each hour, every hour, then sent her to sleep again three minutes later.
And it had done it for ten days solid.
She tried to claim damages, but the courts laughed at her case. Justice was more like an infection these days. Sometimes it was about, sometimes it wasn’t.
“Why couldn’t she just buy an alarm clock like everyone else?” the judge demanded somewhat flippantly in his summing-up.
I wondered exactly what the hell to do next, which was made doubly difficult because my mind resented facing the awful truth of the present and kept trying to skid off elsewhere.
Fuckers. Fuckeeeeeeeeeeeeers! I thought, gazing at the array of pipes around my feet. A man in a sharp suit and Christmas-present tie walked past, looked awkwardly at me. Meeting my eyes, he nodded a smile.
“Morning,” he said.
“Fuckers!” I said pleasantly, making a kind of look-what-happened-to-me gesture with my arms, which was not a gesture I could ever remember making before.
“Exactly,” he said, without breaking stride.
Yes, everything else on my street was pretty much as you’d expect. The smell of oil from somewhere, the neon advertising sign that picked your name up from your C-4 Charlie and turned the whole fluid color screen into a personal ad, which had all been very state-of-the-art twenty years earlier but now was sad and neglected. Part of the screen had crashed, and for the past three months it had got stuck on a Jessica E21, and no one had come to fix it. Yes, the bikes still wound ceaselessly past on the freeway, and inside the shabby Laundromat were the time-honored mix of bored students and worn-out mothers. The flags at the gate out of Chillout fluttered in the distance. Everything was as it had been the night before, when I headed off to the all-night bar six blocks away to see Emma.
And create my first disaster.
The evening had started fine. The usual warm, friendly mix of chatter—and then somehow we’d drifted into a humongous argument, I really couldn’t even remember about what or why.
She was perfect for me.
She was organized, pretty in a no-surprises sort of way, and not altogether paranoid. So why had I upset her so much that she had walked out and left me to sink a surprisingly large amount of alcohol on my own? I know I felt she was generally motivated by fear and I found that immensely frustrating. I wanted to shake it out of her, say “Come on! Forget about what other people will think just for once!” Maybe, this is why I argued with her; maybe I wanted to make something give because I was kidding myself we were a couple, when I knew deep down we were just a convenient distraction for each other.
I looked around. Everything was the same, exactly as you’d expect. Everything that is, except for the stupendously large hole between two buildings in the exact spot where my house used to be.
“Fuckers,” I said again. “Someone stole my fucking house.”
It happened. Not so much now, or maybe it didn’t get as much news coverage since the novelty had worn off, but house stealing was inextricably part of the state culture. Once someone invented a means of stuffing solid matter down to a hundredth of its size, it became the crime all respectable drug gangs wanted a part of. Houses were generally stolen to order now, for rich people who couldn’t be bothered to go through that whole thing of buying furniture and spending hours lamenting over curtain colors and fretting over bathroom fittings. They simply looked through one of the many catalogues that did the rounds on the Dark Side and put a check mark against the one they wanted. Then some guys came along and stole it, and took it to a new location, usually in another state a long way away.
In the old days, gangs had stolen all the houses they conceivably could, but then often found they couldn’t shift them. I’d heard of a place out in the desert in Mexico where there was a scattering of New York penthouses and condos from Florida. They languished at odd angles to each other with no roads and no services, and no one living there except a few students who went out to party now and again. I always fancied going there.
This was definitely a moment to light up a cigarette, but I fought the urge. Sure, I could call in Zone Securities. I could wait around for a tired cop in a seen-better-days uniform to come down and nod in a “there’s-one-born-every-minute” kind of a way. Yeah, I could answer a bundle of questions. But we’d both know my house was long gone.
When a bad thing happens, it asks you who you are. And if you’re not sure, the bad thing gets inside you. It finds a place to hide and you carry it around. I didn’t have a particularly good grip on who I was. Too much stuff had stirred up my head. Too many moments of confusion had knocked me off course. I wanted so much to tidy up the loose ends of my life and start again, but they just kept unraveling, as though some hidden part of me was pulling at the threads.
“Don’t you hate it when this happens?” I said in a barely audible voice, slipping the business card into my inside pocket. “They steal my house, and they leave this.” If I hadn’t been so pissed off, I would have loved them for it.
I took one last look at the hole—they’d sealed off the water and gas and vis-media like professionals—and made a decision. What I quite clearly needed more than anything right now was a Long Island Iced Tea. No. Actually, what I needed were about forty-six Long Island Iced Teas, one after the other.
And I would have headed off to find them straightaway if, at that moment, I had not been accosted by a whirlwind of old newspapers that flew at me like they were out to make some sort of point, or were incensed I hadn’t read them properly.
I batted them out of the way, knowing with a sinking feeling that the approaching howl I could hear meant I was going to see something bad when I got them off my head. And there it was: a GaFFA 6 helicopter hovering about twenty feet off the ground. Not state-of-the-art, the GaFFA 6, but tried and tested. You weren’t a proper gang if you didn’t have a GaFFA 6. There was a thick smell of smoke from the engine, which didn’t seem altogether healthy, and a slick, impenetrable roar from the rotors. The paintwork was scratched up and the logo on the nose too beat-up to make out properly, but I could see quite clearly the two eight-millimeter machine guns, and they were definitely fixed on me.
My mind reeled. Maybe the guys who stole my house wanted to tie up the loose ends? But that seemed unlikely, because this was much too over-the-top a way of going about it. Whoever was in there had been in a hurry to get here, but why? I reckoned I had a wild, outside chance of taking out the pilot if I could get hold of my gun before being riddled with holes, but instinct told me to hang back. If they’d wanted me dead, whoever they were, I would be dead by now.
A rope fell out of the open side door and a small figure in black slid down and landed about ten feet away. The helicopter yawed away and was gone.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” said the figure. “My name is Caroline E61. We’ve just identified you as someone who would particularly benefit from our new range of encyclopedias.” This girl then handed me a large volume bound in blue with the inscription st. mark’s encyclopedia, volume one: aardvark to architect.
“What?” I said, staring at it.
“You’re exactly the sort of person who would benefit from our new range of encyclopedias,” she repeated. “You can’t beat books, can you? We identified this moment from your Medi-Data stream as a time when you’re particularly emotionally vulnerable, and therefore much more open to a sale.”
“What?” I said again.
“Have a browse; there’s really no pressure. Everything from Agua Moose to Zxxth.”
I stared at the book, then looked up and caught myself noticing that her eyes were a searing light blue. “Someone has just stolen my house,” I said, pointedly laboring each word.
“Well, what better way to start afresh than with a new set of fifty-six encyclopedias?” she chirped back, unmoved.
“Look,” I said, “I really don’t mean to be rude, I honestly don’t, but I’m having a bad day, so please, would you mind if I just told you to fuck off?”
She paused, tilted her head slightly to one side and looked at me. Was she smiling? I couldn’t read her expression. I’m normally pretty good with these things, but I suddenly felt strangely out of my depth. A door had opened somewhere and I had blundered through, and I had a terrible sensation I had blundered into a world I did not understand.
“Can’t ‘fuck off,’ as you put it, I’m afraid,” she said, with an edge to her voice. “I’m a limpet saleswoman. We’re a new breed. Go everywhere and do everything. I shall be with you for the entire next twenty-four hours. Haven’t missed a sale yet, and I don’t intend to start with you.” She took out a small handgun and glanced over my shoulder. Now she was scaring me.
“Look,” I said, trying desperately to sound purposeful. “Look, I really don’t want any encyclopedias, and I don’t exactly think you’ll be able to follow me about, so let’s leave it there.”
I turned and walked away. I expected her to follow but she didn’t. This was incredibly confusing. What did she say she was? A limpet encyclopedia saleswoman? Coming out of a helicopter? It really did not add up. I walked self-consciously toward the road to find a taxi and was about ten steps from her when I realized I was still holding the encyclopedia. I turned to find she hadn’t moved. I walked back and offered her the volume.
As she took the book she tugged it, pulling me toward her. Suddenly I was way too close to her face. Those searing blue eyes were awesome. “I’m awfully tenacious,” she whispered, and I felt the tingle of her breath.
“Good,” I said without meaning to. “Right, I mean.” Then I paused. “OK.” I turned toward the road and flagged down a taxi Rider.
It was definitely time for a surprising number of Long Island Iced Teas.