A Twisted Tale by T.L. Krawec
I never liked Hammond. As I enter the pub I spot him at a quiet table near the back, wiping it with a handkerchief. He still looks youthful. Apart from his conservative haircut I could be looking at one of his University photos. He is unchanging and intense. I don’t like him but I need him.
I wonder if he’s pried into photos of my past. I probably don’t strike him as well preserved: over-40 and over-worked.
We shake hands. It fills me with dread that he might have invented something snug to his palm and it…
“How’s it going, Phil?” He says this with a grin.
…injects a tracer…
“Oh you know, alright,” knowing this is a visible lie. I am sweaty, nervous. I sit down opposite.
…or poisons me slowly — polonium, radiation sickness. That’s why we always meet in this bar, it’s busy enough I can imagine nothing will happen.
“What is it you want, Phil?”
He calls me by my first name, I use his surname.
“I usually get the drinks. You’re my insider source, right?”
This creates a barrier, which is a problem.
“I’m not talking about drinks.”
Because I like to know more about people than they know about me.
“I’m sorry Hammond, but I’m tired after a long day. I don’t understand.”
All I’m here for is the rumours of ‘ethical persuasion’ tech coming out of his R&D division.
“Maybe you want this,” he says, and takes a box out of his satchel. It is a nondescript white-ish plastic oblong with rounded edges, the size of two stacked paperbacks.
My dread turns into a specific worry that I’ll be ‘ethically persuaded’.
“What do you think it is?”
I look around the room to make sure that we are not alone. I wonder if he will make me not want to pursue the Ministry of Defence corruption story anymore.
He does not show any glee at having me on the back foot.
“It’s related to my persuasion work. Do you want to touch it?”
I consider how my career will nose-dive if I don’t follow the corruption story.
“No thanks. I don’t know what it does.”
He picks the box up and very carefully manipulates it with his long fingers. The side facing me slides back and behind it is black and clearly receives something.
“Is it a camera?” I stammer slightly.
Maybe this is just a wind-up and we’ll get drunk and laugh, and he’ll drop a few anonymous comments for me to use in a lead article.
“Phil,” he looks at me with a schoolteacher’s seriousness, which sits heavily on his smooth and plump face, “would I not get in trouble for spending part of my department’s frighteningly large budget on something that mundane?”
He laughs. I laugh too, although I don’t know why.
He points the receptor end at a pair of women sitting on the next table. They are too busy talking over their phones to notice.
“I’ve spent the last year looking at brain-scanning . You know, the persuasion thing. And it turns out the bits which tell us what people are consciously thinking are right at the front, where a handy little device can pick up hints of the activity from meters away.”
He takes his laptop out of his bag and connects it to the device with a lead: “Ask them if they’re looking at puppies.”
“Come on, Hammond, they’re cooing ‘that’s cute’. You’re guessing.”
“OK. Think of a number.”
He points the device at me.
“No, Hammond, I’m not playing along…”
“Well, your brain couldn’t help itself. Is your favourite number 7?”
“Your brain said ‘yes’. That’s close to mine.”
I think about leaving and then think about whether that would seem self-incriminating and then think about whether he can see what I am thinking about.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. “You’re wasting my time. I’m off.”
As I put my coat back on he says, “Secrets, Phil. You want to know our secrets. Well, maybe this device helps us know yours.”
He rests his head on steepled hands, his eyes cool and blue above the stupid box.
I try not to think the p word. Thinking about the letter p makes me think of photographs, and that is bad enough, but that is nothing, of course a journalist would think about photographs.
I walk away but I don’t know how far I have to get to be out of its range. I don’t know if it’s real. There’s a line for the bar and I know it is still pointing at me because he just has to rotate it and that black receiver will be aimed straight at my head and the line blocks me from running.
He wants a secret, and the secret is in the photographs, and behind that is another p and that is pornography, but of course everybody looks at that nowadays, what else is Hammond doing with that laptop? Ha, just pornography, that’s all it is.
I push through the line and someone says ‘hey’ and there is spilt beer and I try to pick up the toppled glass while still moving and it rolls to the floor and smashes. Kneeling down I bleed, and I stare at the blood like a predator would, and I freeze because that’s another p-word, one that I don’t want people to call me. It’s not like I take the photos, I’m just looking. And I am thinking that I don’t want to think about that other p word, that extra-secret p-word, but that means I am thinking about it so I run with shards crunching underfoot to the door.
And I keep running down the street.
And as much as my lungs burn I can’t stop running because I have to get home and throw everything away, everything, all the data and all the hardware, everything.
T.L. Krawec had people with dark secrets in his family, and that is why he is driven to write about them.