Parasite of Choice | Introductory sample
“Talk about a piece of slime."
“Sweetheart, it’s the God’s honest truth.”
“You’re such a smartass, Jack, I don’t know why you didn’t think of it before. So let me read that back: you’ll be working overtime at an undisclosed location, on a project that you cannot divulge without going to jail for twenty-five years. It’s so neat and sweet you could wrap it up in aluminum paper and cellophane. Leave it on the breakfast table for me to open in the morning when you haven’t come home. So does she have a name, this State Secret of yours?”
“Look, I’m as bemused by all this as you are. At the lab they didn’t offer me a choice, just informed me. The State Department is one client the company can’t say no to. They told me I’m co-opted onto the item and put any other plans I might have on hold. And, yeah, I had to sign a document, which was when they warned me that I was now legally bound to say nothing—about whatever the hell it is—apart from I’m temporarily seconded to a government job. I guess it’s important. What with all that’s going on.”
“And I’m not? I’m just a plan to be put on the back burner for now, am I? I mean, it’s not as if we see much of each other anymore anyway. From almost nothing to nothing at all. So we just communicate via our avatars now, is that it? Why don’t you have the guts to be a man and just tell me who she is? I’d respect you for that at least. I won’t be angry, I promise.”
“Karen, okay. I’ll just tell them I’m not going to do it. They can find someone else. Jeez.”
“Oh no, I’m not having you sacrifice your career just so you can turn round to me one day and say, ‘You made me do it.’ And don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. You know how dangerous it is nowadays.”
“So what do you want?”
“Go see her. Just don’t lie about it, ok?”
Jack Knight leaned back from the stool against the cold white tiles of the kitchen wall. He wanted a cigarette, but knew how his wife felt about proscribed drugs. He would wait until she was taking a shower and take a few puffs out of the living room window of their sixth floor apartment. It was a subterfuge that remained unnoticed ever since he had configured the living room, as these spaces were still called, into believing that he observed evening worship on its interactive wall screen in private prayer, accompanied by burning incense.
“There’s no one else, Karen. I don’t want anyone else.” It didn’t feel like a satisfactory answer. Jack doubted there was one. His wife looked, as she tended to these days, unconvinced and unappeased. “Let’s go out tomorrow, just you and me. Dinner at the Sea Lion.”
“I have an audition tomorrow.”
“In the evening? I mean, that’s great. Not for... is it? Newsreading?”
“Now that you ask, yes. For TubeBC. It’s the job I’ve been wanting for over a year. But yes, afterwards the Sea Lion would be swell. I’d love that.”
Jack rocked off the stool to give his wife a hug. “That’s terrific. We’ll celebrate.”
They hung onto each other, but without the relief they both desired. They had been home together for twenty minutes and only a hand’s reach away, yet even now some malevolent barrier, intangible and invisible, seemed to be keeping them from each other.
“News is just coming in of a wildfire epidemic in the Sudan, Africa, claiming the lives of thousands of people in just a few hours. The deaths are reported to be concentrated in the production area of the oil-rich region under Chinese administration. White House officials say the alarming development again bears the hallmarks of an intervention by the Peace Corporation, which is understood to be sponsored by a clandestine US citizens’ group now making use of the new tax laws to fund military operations.
“In Europe, Britain has been pressing for similar laws to be pushed through at EU level that would allow citizens of thirty member states to personalize federation tax creditation.
“That’s all from TubeBC news. Stay tuned for more at eight o’clock and online updates at tubc dot com.”
For several seconds after the live broadcast red light went out, Karen continued to look at the camera in her best pose of studied but composed seriousness. No frown, no expression in the mouth. Steady, unblinking, trustworthy eyes. It took one of the production engineers standing in front of her, waving his hands, to persuade her that they had cut.
“That was two things.”
Karen listened, holding her coffee cup in both hands to mask an incipient tremble. You know her last job was a voice-over for a furniture polish commercial, it longed to tip off the producer.
“Thing one: it was unfair of me to stick you in at the deep-end when you only came for a voice-check. But that’s the way I work. If you can’t handle the pressure from Day One, you’re no good to me. I’d already heard your Jensen TV news work and it was straight, unsullied, professional stuff. I reckoned you could handle it. Thing two: you were good. You were very good. A little too much warmth in the tone, but that comes from wanting to please. You’ll soon cool that off.”
“I’ve got the job?”
“They’ll be expecting you now. Viewers don’t take kindly to chopping and changing news readers all the time. They think they’ve got the wrong channel and zap off. The news can change, but not the face and the voice that delivers it. They’ll be expecting Karen Ferreira now.”
Karen Ferreira, not Knight. The bosses had decided on her maiden name and she had liked it, too. She tried to tell herself that it was nothing to do with her and Jack. Would he see it as a snub? She turned her mind back to matters in hand.
“What about Everton Quilly? It’s his spot. He’s not ill or anything?”
“Everton? Hell, no,” Manila Vassi’s New York twang went contralto. “He’s fine. Steady as the sunrise — sunrise being what he’s tired of, which is why we’re switching him to the later shift. And we’re doubling the hourly news broadcasts to go out every half hour. Recent events suggest that it’s necessary. I don’t have to tell you that: you just told eighty million people the latest. So just do what you did just now and… hold the warmth.”
Hold the warmth. Just the opposite of the wood polish commercial, then. She could do that.
“Oh, just one more thing, Karen, you do accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, don’t you? And obey the Commandments?”
Is this a trick she plays on everyone, to see if they are easily knocked off balance? Karen wondered. She tried to look into Manila Vassi’s eyes but the woman’s tinted spectacles obstructed the intent and the lipsticked mouth wasn’t giving anything away either.
“I’m a Christian, if that’s what you mean, yes.”
“A new contractual stipulation, that’s all. Great, well, that just about wraps it up.”
“Just as well I’m not Jewish,” Karen tested the woman. “Or atheist, or Hindu.”
“They’re talking special dispensation for Jews.” Vassi’s spectacles looked aside. For the first time, she looked less than totally assertive and secure. “Look, nobody really knows what’s going on,” she confided reluctantly. “One of the financial directors was fired this morning for cheating on her husband. For a fling she had with the man next door three years ago. Now she’s under clerical arrest. It seems the Commandments are a requirement.”
“Number Seven. Thou shalt not commit adultery,” Karen remembered from her catechism days.
“Number Ten,” Manila differed. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass.”
“So what were his actual words?” asked Karen’s friend, Edie.
“I can’t get away. And I don’t know when I can. It’s not like a normal working schedule. These people seem to work round the clock. I’m so sorry etcetera,” Karen poked her fork here and there in the rice salad. She pretended to be searching for an elusive piece of walnut rather than have to actually chew and swallow something.
“Did he ask you about the job?”
“Oh yes. So proud, so happy for me. So fantastic. So not here. So not sitting opposite me at the Sea Lion filling glasses with champagne and ordering wine to go with the seafood. Not that I like champagne, it gives me indigestion.” Karen stopped picking at the salad and looked worriedly at her frizzy-haired friend. “It’s like everything’s changing and I don’t want it to.”
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