To most people, Javier Gonzalez is an ordinary man. If you were to ask him, he would tell you that he runs an acting studio in Santiago, Chile, which is the truth, but not the whole story. Only a handful of people know that Javier also runs an unusual sort of business. With the help of a team of actors, Javier engineers social situations that meet the unique needs of his clients. If you want your boss to like you, he can help; if you want the weatherman to fall in love with you, he can arrange it. He calls his business Human Solutions, and that is exactly what he provides.
And he is good. Javier's manipulations never fail because he controls every moment of every interaction - he is precise, observant and emotionally ruthless and this has served him well. But then one day he slips. He falls for a woman, and against his better judgment, and the council of his associates, Javier takes on her case - a case he would never touch under ordinary circumstances. The woman's name is Elena, and her son is locked behind the well-armed walls of a cult masquerading as an educational institution. She wants him out, so Javier agrees to go in.
Once behind the walls of the compound, Javier meets a man who is running a larger-scale social manipulation than he ever thought possible. The man is Peter Wenzelor Uncle Peter, as he insists on being calledand as the charismatic leader of the cult he deftly manipulates his followers through a complicated system of fear, deception and brutality. Uncle Peter is an ex-Nazi, expelled from Germany for molesting children, and his ties with General PinochetChile's barbarous dictatorare extensive and terrifying. He is a man with no conscience or fearand Javier quickly realizes that he may have met his match.
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A young woman walked into the office and asked to see me.
"Make her wait half an hour," I said to my secretary.
She returned to the reception to tell the woman I was busy and would see her shortly. I worked on another file until my secretary poked her head in again.
"How about now?" she said.
I nodded without looking up from my work. The woman entered the room, and my secretary quietly shut the door behind her.
"I don't want to know your name," I said as she was sitting down.
The woman leaned forward and looked at me attentively.
"Okay," she said.
"I'm in love with the weatherman," said the woman.
"Your name is Laura."
"I have an Aunt Laura," she said. "Could we change it to something else?"
I pulled out a pad of yellow legal paper and told her to start talking.
Laura was twenty-eight years old. She had been in a couple of long-term relationships and in several short ones. She was — by her own admission — attractive, intelligent and funny. She did not have any trouble meeting men. Every night she watched the news on television, just so she could see the weatherman.
"You don't understand," she said. She was right — I didn't. "But every time they say 'over to you, Diego, for a look at the weather,' my heart starts to go."
I pretended to be taking notes.
"His energy," Laura said, "is the most powerful force I have ever encountered. It just about blows me off my feet."
I had seen the weatherman on television. His name was Diego. He was a young man, probably in his early thirties, adequately handsome, and overly enthusiastic about his often erroneous predictions.
"I see," I said.
"I don't want you to think I'm crazy," Laura said. "I'm not a stalker, and I'm not obsessed. I just think it would be fun to get to meet him sometime and see if we hit it off."
"I don't want to be inappropriate," Laura said, "but there are certain things that he says that make my knees melt. When he talks about 'humid conditions' — just the way he says that word. Humid. What his lips do when he says that word."
I frowned and concerned myself with appearing to write.
"Or when there's a natural disaster warning," she continued. "A mud slide or something like that, the way his eyebrows move towards each other when he's looking concerned."
I shifted in my seat and cleared my throat. Then I told Laura that we would take her on as a client. She clapped her hands together and thanked me.
"How did you find out about us?" I said.
Laura looked uncomfortable. "I was telling a friend of mine about Diego, and she told me about you."
"Which friend?" I said.
"Oh, I shouldn't say."
I raised my eyebrows at her. "Yes, you should."
Laura rotated one of her earrings.
"Gabriela," she said, finally, "Gabriela Morales."
I noted this on my pad of paper. Gabriela would be receiving a referral invoice from us shortly. She would be expecting it.
"What did Gabriela tell you?" I said.
"She didn't say much. Just that you helped her get her in-laws to stop hating her."
"Here's what I can tell you," I said. "We are called Human Solutions, but you won't find that anywhere. Not in the phone book, not in any directory or business bureau. As far as anyone is concerned, we don't exist."
Laura nodded eagerly.
"We are in the business of making things happen," I said. "If you want the weatherman to fall in love with you, we'll make it happen. If there's a job that you really want, we'll make it happen. If you're lonely and want more friends, we'll make it happen. Anything."
"Our job is to worry about the how. Your job is to give us all the information we need and to do exactly what we say."
Laura considered this. "What about payment?"
I explained about our fee structure — there would be an initial lump sum and then subsequent payments depending on the length of time required to complete the Manipulation.
"This is the initial lump sum," I said. I wrote a number down on a piece of paper and handed it to her.
Laura looked at it and shrugged.
"How are you going to afford that?"
She told me her last name. It was the name of Chile's major grocery chain.
"One more thing," I said, "about payment. We will also need a written guarantee that you will help us with future Manipulations — on our side, we guarantee that our requests will be acceptable and not unreasonable."
"All right," Laura said. "I'll do it."
She stuck her hand out across the table. I shook it — her skin was soft, but her grip was firm.
"What if it doesn't work?" Laura said.
"It always works."
I gestured towards the door. "If you don't mind," I said.CHAPTER 2
After Laura had left, I walked out to the reception area. It was a vacant space — a desk, a couple of chairs, nothing more. I asked my secretary to schedule a meeting with Julio and Rodolfo for sometime that afternoon.
"Tell them we've got a new client," I said.
She wrote herself a note.
"I'm going out for lunch," I said.
"And when will you be back?"
This was a new secretary — I ignored her question and walked out into the bustle of downtown Santiago. The lunch crowd was spilling from tall buildings and filing neatly into cafes and restaurants and sandwich shops. I went to my usual place — German Lunch Pail, it was called. I sat at the bar and waited until my waitress came by with a glass of water. "The usual, Javier?" she said.
"With salad this time. No fries."
"Come on — no fries?"
"Some fries. Two or three fries, but some salad too."
"Okay, okay," she said, rubbing my shoulder.
Maybe I would come here for lunch with my secretary. Just for learning's sake.
The waitress came by with a glass of dark beer and the newspaper.
"Are you still married?" I said.
"Same as yesterday," she said. "Ask me again tomorrow."
I took a sip of the beer. When my food arrived, I rotated the plate until it was lined up right — French fries on the left, salad at the top, and sandwich on the right. The sandwich was a delicious mess of thinly-sliced pieces of steak, melted cheese, fried onion, tomato, avocado, and mayonnaise. There was nothing German about this place other than some imported beer and the best apple kÃ1/4chen in the city.
I didn't very much like eating alone, but it seemed to be happening more and more. I reached for the newspaper, El Mercurio, and flapped the pages around until I got it to fold right. The newspaper was not much more than a placeholder these days. The Dictator — General Pinochet — had an iron grip on the media. There had not been much dissent in the mainstream media in the fifteen years since the day he had taken over the country — September 11, 1973 — but, somewhere beneath the thin layers of black print, there was an audible grumbling coming from both left and right. Tensions were running high in this country.
"Some dessert?" said the waitress.
"I have a meeting this afternoon," I said. "I need to be a little bit hungry sometimes if I want to get things done."
I looked up. She was still standing there, but, somewhere inside, she was already at the next table, collecting her tip, then clocking out, then at home, taking off the ridiculous Germanbar-maid outfit they made her wear.CHAPTER 3
I had my secretary boil some water for instant coffee.
"I could go buy some cookies," she said.
Julio shook his head. "No, no, don't bother." Julio had once been a professor of Sociology at the Universidad Católica de Chile. Immediately following Pinochet's takeover, he was removed from his position after refusing to withdraw from the lectures any mention of the upsides of Communism and Socialism. He had gone back to school and become a psychotherapist. I asked after his wife and kids; he asked after my students at the Acting Studio.
Rodolfo burst in, with half a sandwich dangling from his hands. He scratched his beard and settled comfortably into a chair. He worked three days a week as a private investigator and two days a week for Human Solutions.
We exchanged pleasantries, and then I cleared my throat. I shuffled through the papers on my desk until I found my notes. Then I recounted my meeting with Laura that morning. Julio took off his glasses and closed his eyes as I stood and spoke. Rodolfo tracked my pacing and gesturing, only occasionally making direct eye contact.
When I was done, we came up with a list of questions that we needed to have answered — who were Diego's friends, what did he do in his spare time, what was his living situation, etc. Nothing could be done until we knew more.
"I'll do some surveillance," Rodolfo said.
"We'll meet in a few days," I said.
By the time Julio and Rodolfo left, it was dark outside. I tried to finish up some paperwork but couldn't get anything done. My secretary came in to tell me she was going home.
"I'll walk you to the subway," I said. "I'm going there myself."
She looked embarrassed. "I have a date," she said. "We're meeting at a restaurant right near here."
I looked back down at my papers. "Have fun," I said, without looking up. "I'll see you Wednesday."
The phone was just sitting there, so I called up my sister.
"You sound like a woman who wants to go for a drink," I said when she picked up.
"Only my brother could know me that well," she said. "But we're going to a party at our friends' house."
I grunted and tapped my fingers on the desk.
"Hey, Javier," she said. "Why don't you come with us?"
"I need to get back to work. We'll go for that drink some other time."
"You're thirty-eight years old, and you're single," she said. "You're coming to this party whether you like it or not."
"I have a prior commitment."
"We'll pick you up in twenty minutes."
She hung up. I carefully put the phone down on the receiver. Then I slid open my desk drawer and lifted out a clean shirt.CHAPTER 4
María Paz and her husband picked me up in their sedan.
"What's this dinner party?" I said.
"Just some friends," María Paz said. "That shirt looks nice on you."
"I picked it up some time ago. I don't wear it much."
She looked at me in the rearview mirror. "I bought it for your birthday two years ago," she said.
It seemed unlikely but not impossible. I changed the subject by asking María Paz's husband about his job — he was a civil engineer. Then I let the conversation peter out, and we rode the rest of the way in silence.
The party was in a rural section of the city, partway up one of the mountains that encircle Santiago. The view was something else — all broad mountains and winding canyons. I fished a bottle of beer out of a washtub filled with ice and looked around to see if I knew anyone. María Paz and her husband had vanished, and I had that awful feeling you get when you're standing alone at a party. It was the same blend of exclusion and loneliness that I get at an airport when my fellow passengers are greeted with hugs and kisses at the arrivals area, and I am left looking for signage to the taxis.
I saw a group of men standing around a large hole in the ground. I went up to get a closer look.
"What's this all about?" I said to the man next to me.
"Curanto en hoyo," he said. "They eat it in the South. We made a fire in the hole this morning and heated up a bunch of rocks. Then we wrapped big leaves around fish and oysters and clams and potatoes and carrots, and covered it all in dirt. Now we're digging it up."
I stared down at the food that was being carefully pulled from the dirt. The man introduced himself. He began to tell me about a childhood memory of eating curanto en hoyo, so I roped a bystander into our conversation and then quietly escaped.
There were a number of bottles of red wine on a table. I helped myself to a glass. My sister caught my eye and waved me over to where she was talking to a woman. I pretended not to notice, until she called out for me to come meet her friend. After downing the glass, I refilled it and walked over to where they stood.
"I," said the woman, "am just so impressed by the things María Paz has been telling me."
I looked at my sister with a blank face. She smiled.
"Now what's with this acting studio your sister mentioned?"
"Sorry, I'm being rude," María Paz said. "Javier, this is Elena — Oh! There's Soledad!"
María Paz hurried away, and I took a long sip of my wine.
"You were going to say," Elena said. "About the acting studio?"
"I run an acting studio. I teach people how to act."
"I always wanted to act! You've been doing it for a while?"
I told her a little more and asked what she did to keep busy. She was a colour psychologist — someone who conducts studies to examine the feelings evoked by showing people different colours.
"For instance, if a cereal company wants to launch a new cereal, they would hire me to determine what colour combinations to use for the box — a process involving numerous surveys and dozens of cereal-box iterations being shown to hundreds of subjects. I'm then able to advise the company on which colour combinations induced hunger, or excitement, or pleasure, or low self-esteem, or whatever they want."
It was an interesting concept, and I wanted to know more — the possible uses in future Manipulations came to mind — but Elena had begun touching my arm every so often, and I was ready to get away. I'm suspicious of women who seem to like me before they know the first thing about me.
"It's been a pleasure," I said and gestured towards my empty wine glass, "but I must go find the washroom."
I went into the house but was not particularly in need of a washroom. I wandered into the kitchen and found some crackers and cheese. A man walked into the room and rummaged around in the cupboards until he found a glass. He walked over to the sink and filled it with water and then turned to me.
"That woman you were talking to," he said, "is something else."
I ate a cracker and nodded noncommittally.
"May I ask, is she your wife?" "She's not," I said.
"Is she your girlfriend, then?"
It occurred to me that there was nothing at all wrong with Elena — she was good-looking and interesting and bright.
"She's not my girlfriend," I said, "but I'm just in the process of asking her to dinner."
"Well, if she's not your girlfriend —"
I held up a hand to interrupt him. "Tell you what," I said. "If she says, 'No,' I'll make sure to come over and let you know, so that you can try your luck."
I left the room before he could give this proper consideration. I hurried outside and found Elena in the middle of a spirited conversation with an older man.
"Sorry to interrupt," I said to the older man. I pulled Elena aside by her elbow and placed one of my business cards in her hand.
"I'd like to take you out to dinner," I said. "Perhaps sometime this weekend?"
Elena smiled. "That would be lovely."
"Great," I said. "Give me a call, and we'll figure out the details."
I walked her back over to the old man and left them both to continue their conversation. The prospect of having dinner with someone who actually seemed like an interesting person was simultaneously exciting and frightening. I wanted the company, the partnership — but as much as we try, we can never have full control over how other people behave or what might happen to them.
María Paz was nowhere to be found, but her husband materialized by my side. I told him about Elena, and he slapped my shoulder. We went to look for María Paz and found her sitting at a table with a large plate of oysters.
"You look like you need some help eating those," I said. She nodded vigorously — like someone who has consumed too much wine. The three of us ate the oysters and then another plateful.CHAPTER 5
Rodolfo stirred some milk into his coffee. He added three lumps of sugar and looked over at me.
"Shall I begin?" he said.
I nodded. Julio took out a pad of paper and settled back into his chair.
"Here are some photos of Diego," Rodolfo said, handing us a small stack of black-and-white surveillance photos. Diego walking out of his apartment. Diego on the phone at his window. Diego playing soccer in the park.
Rodolfo brushed cookie crumbs off his shirt and continued. Diego lived in an old apartment building in a gentrifying neighborhood. He spent most of his free time playing soccer with friends and drinking beer at a bar near his place. Rodolfo briefed us on when Diego usually went to bed and when he awoke. He told us what he bought at the grocery store and what books he checked out from the library.
"Here's what I think," Julio said. "Let's give him a new friend, and then we'll set up a big meeting. Group encounters seem to work best with young people."
I nodded and made a note on my legal pad. We discussed the logistics of giving Diego a new friend. I would have to pick one of my actors to play the role.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Human Solutions"
Copyright © 2014 Avi Silberstein.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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