ELEVEN YEARS AGO
Ethan Fraction, Steven Walker, and Black Adam sat handcuffed in a large, bright, thoroughly soundproofed room. They were all twenty-five years old, acutely aware of who’d ordered their abduction, and the recipients of a world-class shit-kicking. Somewhere after being black bagged and hauled into a nondescript white van from the corner of East 5th and B, they’d been remanded to the custody of a pair of professional torturers. The men, wielding rusted pliers and explicitly labelled “wound salt” interrogated the boys for hours on end, playing Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” on repeat as they maimed their quarry. The boys answered honestly when asked about what had happened in the desert, the woman who’d brought them there, and what evidence they held. They plead ignorance to more abstract lines of questioning. They were journalists, and hardly equipped to deal with that kind of pain. Still, fingernails were removed and nooses were occupied. Eventually, a small red light in the corner of the room came alive. The torturers calmly packed up their instruments and left without a word.
Some five minutes after the men departed, Walker decided he’d be the one to speak up.
“Do you think we made a mistake here?”
Black Adam dismissed the notion outright. “No. No, I think if we made any mistakes here—and I’m hesitant to say we did—it was offering up such a small bribe. I mean, I can see how they might find an offer of one whole dollar insulting.”
“Yeah, I don’t think they were impressed when I kept asking to see a wine list, either,” Fraction added. “Which is weird, ‘cause this is one of the nicer places I’ve been beat half to dea--.”
Fraction stopped himself at the sound of the door handle. A man in his early forties walked in; tall, thin, his head shaven. He wore a dark gray suit, something bespeaking taste as much as wealth. The man pulled up a chair in front of the boys and exhaled as he sat down.
“So, you really don’t know anything,” he said, taken aback. Bemused. Baffled, they stared back at him. Miyamoto had given them everything. He had to be aware of that.
“There was some worry that Ms. Miyamoto had told you something, well, actionable, but the lie detector and the interrogation seem to suggest otherwise. I mean, I know she told you about us, the operation in the desert and all that, but that’s not really an issue. If she’d divulged something above her pay grade, this floor would probably look messier.”
Fraction ejected some blood with a cough. “Yeah? How many teeth would I be missing then?”
The man in the suit paused. The boys had been left in a state. Walker’s right eye had swelled, his face reddened. A faint halo of ligature marks had formed around Black Adam’s neck, flashes of light and ringing noise still visiting him in pangs. The shoulder of Fraction’s black shirt was wet from a hastily patched knife wound. In addition to losing a couple molars, the space his middle fingernail once occupied bled profusely. The pool of red that had formed beneath it on the floor began to push out into a crooked line, slowly obeying gravity’s command to reach the drain in the center of the room.
“You know why we don’t kill people like you? It’s not about martyrdom; martyrs are for t-shirts, not revolutions. We let you live so you can go out and tell the truth. What you do know might be a little dangerous, but there are checks and balances. The narrative ecosystem of the world is structured to disarm dangerous ideas. The minute you tell someone anything like this, true or false, their desire to adhere to the social contract makes them reject it. In most cases, people are cynical enough that they’ve already come to a similar conclusion and they’re willing to accept it in the abstract. But-- if you confront them with it as a tangible reality, they will back away from the social leper you’ve made yourself.”
A kind of dread washed over of them as he connected the dots. He was talking about a trap made of neurons, a way to seize on decades of conditioning. What were the implications of a notion like that? What other marionette strings hooked into the floor of their cognition?
The stream of blood continued to push forward with sudden, intermittent accelerations, carried across the vein of the white tiled floor’s grout.
“We let you live so you can tell the truth. We let you tell the truth because doing so only makes it more unbelievable. Killing you—killing you is a waste of ammunition and janitorial wages. We need you out there relegating yourselves to the ranks of conspiracy theorists, trivializing what you know by shouting it from the rooftops. This isn’t the kind of secret you keep to yourself. It’s the kind you let leak out so it can burn through someone.”
The line of red quietly reached the drain. The man leaned forward, his eyes thinning.
“This is a truth that oxidizes as fiction.”
Fraction considered this.
“Yeah, you’d probably better just kill us.”
Fraction and Walker had been standing at the foot of their building for ten minutes, staring down the street at a newsstand. 9:00 AM was an ungodly hour for either to be dressed and alert, but the day called for it. They dressed almost ritualistically. Walker wore a two-piece suit, Fraction holding to a uniform of dark jeans, black hoodie, and a worn black jacket. Themselves to the nth degree.
A year prior the boys had been given the opportunity to launch a new magazine as editors-in-chief, an aberration in the time of print media’s death rattle. The unimaginatively titled “Alpha”, which had yet to see its first issue hit stands, was meant to be a general interest men’s magazine with a manifest destiny bent; Maxim for the non-cognitive set. It was a strange move for two people who wore hazmat suits while visiting any state with a substandard average IQ. They were politically apathetic, despised low-culture, and were generally loathed by their superiors. That said, they’d developed something of a reputation as fixers, often turning flagging sales around for the publications they headed.
Unfortunately for their employers, they had no intention of doing any of these things they’d promised to.
“I can’t believe we got away with it,” Walker said.
“I can’t believe I got saddled with a partner who looks like a discount Ken Doll on meth, but we’ll both manage,” Fraction replied, bookended by drags from a cigarette.
“I honestly think you learned everything you know about personal grooming from an amputee at a truckstop. I do.”
“You know there’s a running bet in layout that you pay someone to dress you, right?”
“That’s not true.”
“No, it is, I started it.”
“One day you’re going to wake up and discover there’s a live weasel in your stomach, and when you do, I want you to know I put it there.”
Ash MacRae, their office manager, appeared beside Fraction. She didn’t greet them, and they didn’t so much as turn their heads. They were all transfixed by the newsstand.
“Huh. There it is," she said.
“Yup," Walker said.
“So, how long until we’re all out on the street?”
Walker mulled it over.
“Maybe six, seven hours.” A pause. “Is that meeting with the printers still on tomorrow?”
“Friday. 1PM. I’ve expressed your endless gratitude for their discretion.”
Fraction’s brow furrowed. “That doesn’t sound like us.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Ash said wryly, “but they went to a lot of trouble to keep this quiet. Any word on Bill?”
“Late afternoon,” Fraction said, tossing his cigarette.
“You realize he’ll probably murder you guys," Ash pointed out.
“Yeah," Walker said, "but that’s just a general reaction people have when they’ve been hugely screwed over."
The magazine’s offices occupied the top floor of 3 Park Avenue, a skyscraper in Midtown. 41 stories high and surfaced in burnt-orange brick, it stood out. In a way the building was anomalous; the only one to sit at a 45 degree angle to the city’s rigid street grid. The place was an exercise in irreverence, its bones built contrary.
The offices themselves were open concept; after years of suffering becubicled work environments, the boys wanted a space incapable of stifling their voices and whatever obscenities they might carry. Finally there would be nothing to stop them from disrupting the work they’d tasked others with completing. The windows of their personal offices faced the corner of Park Ave and 34th Street, the front doors looked out on the bullpen. It wasn’t that they wanted to monitor their employees, it was just the safest way to ensure the two would never have to look directly at each other as they were working. After the first call to the fire department, Ash had vetoed inter-office line of sight.
Typically, mornings at the office were quiet. Fraction and Walker usually arrived around eleven, allowing the staff a full two hours of uninterrupted work before damaging the calm of the environment. For the two to appear at nine in the morning was irregular and distressing, as if they were there to announce a death. Everyone felt a little better when they saw the boys walk up to a copy editor and wordlessly test him with a Geiger counter. Things were tense, but it wasn’t severe enough to interrupt such hallowed routines as the television effigy, alcoholic roulette, or the 3pm rat sacrifice.
Fraction led the morning meeting, a conference room of two dozen staffers looking on at him and Walker, waiting to get back to doing actual work. He took tremendous satisfaction in having won the coin toss to lead the meeting, as doing so meant getting to deliver words one waits their entire life to speak.
“Good morning, horrible subordinates. Before we get started, some of you may have noticed the man in the gorilla suit with the handgun.” Everyone had noticed. “This is Sprinkles, our new head of security. And when I say ‘our security’, I’m talking really just talking about, well,” he pointed a finger between himself and Walker, “our security. Understand that Sprinkles cannot communicate using anything other than that gun, so, y’know, don’t fuck around with him. He has no sense of humor to speak of, and despite the exorbitant fee he’s paid to wear the outfit, he does not care for it.” Sprinkles didn’t move, but something in the dead, black eye sockets of his gorilla costume articulated his rage.
Nate Adler, one of the younger staffers, raised his hand. “I have a question, and this may be stupid—“
Walker nodded gravely. “Oh, probably.”
“Why is he wearing a gorilla suit?”
After motioning for Sprinkles to keep his gun holstered, Fraction and Walker stared back at Nate as if to say “why would you even ask that?”
“If we’re all done posing ridiculous questions,” Walker said, “today’s kind of a big deal, and we’re going to need comprehensive status updates from everyone. Let’s start with… Watts.”
“It’s in Antigua,” Laura Watts responded.
Fraction thought about it for a second. “Well, it’s easier than Pyongyang.”
Watts was one of the magazine’s staff writers. Fraction and Walker rescued her languishing talents from a newsmagazine under another publisher. The boys had caught wind of someone trying to shop an exceptionally damning and well-researched piece about an unusual public relations firm and being rejected at every turn. Watts had been working on the article for months when her boss canned it. Though sympathetic, he told her that the piece would conflict with the interests of new advertisers. There was no ill will, but it was a stark reminder that there was a ceiling for competence and integrity in the business. She’d hit it.
The boys had Watts tracking down something that had started out as a rumour. It was called “The Vice Bible”; a secret wiki of what could be best described as criminal data. It housed illegally obtained information on everything from the infrastructure of major cities to airline security practices, detailed records of major crimes both successful and unsuccessful, and an ocean of data dumps from various governmental and corporate entities. Most international law enforcement agencies denied its existence and downplayed its plausibility for fear that the concept would find new audiences, but it was real, mobile, and apparently on vacation.
“Have you made contact,” Fraction asked.
“Someone’s willing to make an introduction. After all the denials—I think the guys running the show are really just looking to embarrass INTERPOL. That publicist in Lyon’s spent five years willfully lying about it and now these guys are not only going to appear in an American magazine, but they’ll probably leak INTERPOL documents contradicting their public statements.”
Fraction groaned out a lengthy expletive. “Travel’s going to be a goddamn debacle.”
“There’s a direct flight out of—“
“No, think for a second, okay? You fly into Cordington or V.C. Bird next week, that’s fine, nobody gives a shit. Two months from now when this hits the stands? A dozen intelligence agencies pull your flight records and figure out where these guys are in a day. They’re not going to let you just fly in. What they’re going to do is send you somewhere in the opposite direction, let you sit there in a hotel for a few days, then smuggle you to Antigua in a shipping container or something.”
This wasn’t the first time the boys had explained the facts of life to someone during a staff meeting. Explanations like this often left the recipient feeling microscopic and incalculably stupid. Watts knew that arguing wasn’t productive. They understood something she didn’t. She’d address the tenor of it all when the time was right.
“Who’s going to be footing the bill for this spectacularly dehumanizing exercise,” she asked.
“These guys are criminally omnipotent,” Fraction said, looking away to sign a document Ash had brought to the table. “I’m sure they’ve got a few bucks lying around. Set it up. And take Adler with you.”
Watts and Nate looked at each other, then Fraction.
“The kid can do his work from anywhere. He might as well see what actual journalism looks like. Speaking of which, you’re next.”
As prepared as Nate was, Fraction and Walker still made him nervous. Something about their being generally horrible and completely unflappable seemed to do that to people.
“Uh, all done, I just want to make sure—“
Walker cut him off, not bothering to look up from his phone. “However that sentence was going to end, we have fact checkers and copy editors to handle it. And remember, you’re kind of writing the lynchpin for the entire magazine, so please try not to fuck it up.” The phone made a successful “ding” sound. “Since you’re ahead of your deadline, I’d like to see your pitch for next month by end of day.”
Fraction turned to Walker. “Who’s leading this meeting, exactly?”
“I didn’t hear you cutting off Adler’s incoherent ramblings. And kid, seriously, I don’t need to hear your life story.”
“You know I don’t even—actually Nate, you really were over-sharing there, try and keep your personal life at home—I don’t even mind that you’re just sitting there playing eighties Nintendo games on your phone right now, because it means fewer sounds leave your mouth, so can I get you to stick with that?”
Walker dropped his phone on the table. “For-fucking-give me, but I’d like to move along at a decent clip, here.”
“Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to buy a thick, gigantic box with a thin slot in it. I’m going to trap you in it, and when you need to communicate, you’ll just slide out a little piece of paper. Because that is my threshold for you impacting my world.”
“I have dreams, amazing dreams, where I’m hunting you for sport on an island. I’m not even kidding. It usually gets as far as me dropping you off at a taxidermist.”
“Is there a specific frequency you speak at? Because if injure myself just right, I can probably deafen myself to it.”
“I have hired teams—multiple teams-- of surveyors to locate an actual bottomless pit just so I can shove you into it. Literally, three different companies.”
“Ash, can you please get a scientist who speaks very slowly to come in to the office and explain to Walker how fucking stupid he is?”
“She’s not allowed to take si—“
The argument came to a standstill when the boys looked out at the conference room and saw nothing but empty chairs. Deflated without an audience, they stopped.
Walker resumed playing with his phone. “See, this is exactly why we’re hiring a new editor.”
Adam locked the apartment door and made his way to the elevator. The hallway saw no light from outside, just the flicker and tint of fluorescent tubes. The accommodations were temporary, but familiar. He’d spent his twenties in this part of the city, living in dive apartments while freelancing. They were good years; not necessarily happy, but purposeful. He was unsettled by how easily he’d readjusted. At times it felt like he’d never left, as if his departure and return were opposite sides of a wound threatening to heal over the memory of the intervening era. The elevator doors divided. Two floors down, a couple of kids in their twenties got in, off to jobs as baristas or graphic designers. This was the kind of place where nobody would think it strange, a couple of hipster kids in the same elevator as a man in his thirties wearing a thousand dollar suit. Not just the neighborhood, but the city. He’d missed that lack of friction in the suburbs.
Main floor. Adam walked out the front door and stood at the curb. A stranger waved from a community garden lot crammed between two buildings across the street. He forced a smile back. It was a sunny day in the Lower East Side.
“Okay,” he said to himself. “Let’s start some fires.”
He started towards Midtown.
Fraction and Walker stood in an auxiliary conference room staring at two walls lined with sheets of paper; crowded documents spread out page by page, riddled with pen and highlighter. They weren’t speaking, just following along line after line of text. It had been like this every other day for the better part of the last year; each afternoon arranging the pages in sequence and each night putting them away in a safe. Often there were lawyers in the room. More often, former lawyers who had been disbarred. Once, a pony.
Ash looked in on the boys. It was always strange to see them so quiet, especially in each other’s company. She left them to it and made her rounds in the office, ensuring work moved along. Ash didn’t have a traditional role at the magazine. On paper she was described as an “executive assistant”, a title she and the boys chose as a joke. Her authority was second only to Fraction and Walker’s, and she routinely played a part in operational and human resources decisions. That she was twenty-four, pretty, and had no background in publishing raised some eyebrows amongst the staff. The knowledge that her previous job involved serving coffee at a Starbucks down the street would likely only exacerbate the situation. Even she wasn’t sure what she was doing there some days.
Ash suspected that she was around because, unlike Fraction and Walker, she was able to exude some measure of warmth while commanding respect. They didn’t have any interest in being relatable as people, and she was almost universally beloved. She was their human proxy.
Ash found Watts at her desk, a space near a window that never really got any direct sunlight, and as such didn’t distract her from work with trivialities like the passage of time. She was rattling off an e-mail, her typing the precise, rapid clatter of someone who actually knew how to use a keyboard. Watts wasn’t a workaholic, she just—actually, no, Watts was a workaholic.
“Any word on your vacation,” Ash asked.
“Two weeks,” Watts said, pulled out of her daze. “I’ll forward you the itinerary they gave me.” She steeled herself at the thought. This was the work she wanted to be doing, she reminded herself. She knew it wouldn’t be without its hazards, but felt like she was being shot into space. “They ok’d my plus-one,” she added. “Is this their idea of giving the kid some seasoning?”
Ash gave a knowing smile. “I think they want him to have a larger role here than just sitting at a desk cranking out essays.”
Nate had a similar question later on. “Are they sending me to Antigua to die?”
Ash offered her reassurance. “Wouldn’t you prefer to die somewhere nice?
Fraction burst into Walker’s office.
“I need to hide under your desk.”
Walker was unphased. “I’m against that.”
“I swear to God, I’ll give you a thousand dollars to let me crouch behind a fern, just fucking HIDE ME.”
Walker leaned back in his chair.
“I’m actually a lot more interested in what’ll happen if I just let this play out.”
Fraction peeked his head out the door, only to snap back in. There was no way out, now. He narrowed his eyes at Walker and spoke through gritted teeth. “When you come into work tomorrow, this office will be full of angry, flatulent animals.”
“It’s not my fault you were too lazy to run any further than next door for a hiding spot.”
“Who would even think to find me in the office of the person I hate the most?”
“Anyone who knows you’re a lazy asshole! Is it okay if I get some work done here, or did you have some more desperation you wanted to spew at me?”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Do I actually have to get the monkey with a gun remove you?”
“Actually, that’s a good idea,” Fraction muttered to himself, “I’ll just tell Sprinkles she’s a security issue.”
Walker zeroed in on the pronoun. “She?”
“Yeah,” Fraction said absentmindedly, poking his head out the door again.
Fraction retreated to the window. “Maybe.”
“Christ.” He turned to Fraction behind him. “This is exactly what I was talking about when I suggested having an actual, physical escape hatch we could—“
“What the hell are you two doing?” Walker was cut off by a woman with a Portland accent in the doorway. The boys turned around in slow motion. She breezed by Walker and went straight for Fraction.
“Talk,” she said, her finger in his face.
“I don’t really have anything prepared,” Fraction said.
“This morning Bill McCutcheon called me and asked a series of very specific questions about you two.”
“I certainly hope you told him I’m a cuddler,” Walker said in the background.
“I’d never even spoken to McCutcheon before this morning. He doesn’t talk to in-house counsel except my boss. He deals with entire branches of the company—his company— not individual publications, and your magazine hasn’t even hit the stands yet. Suffice it to say, he is abnormally interested in you two right now. So I’m going to ask again and you’re going to force it through your brain that nobody but you is amused by your shtick: what did you two do?”
Walker piped up. “What makes you think we did something?”
“I spent years keeping you idiots out of handcuffs. I know you. ‘Fraction and Walker are editing the Fox News of lowbrow men’s magazines’? When they offered you the EIC job at Maxim you sent back an issue crammed into a mason jar full of disinfectant.
“Whatever you’ve done, he’s starting to figure it out.”
“I’d hope so,” Fraction said. “If I had an MBA and I hadn’t figured it out by now, I’d just be embarrassed.”
“Are you seriously throwing your careers away over a ‘fuck you’ to McCutcheon?” It was hard to tell if she was concerned or just livid.
“Do you really think I’m that immature?”
“For your thirtieth birthday party, you had an open bar and pyro at Chuck-e-Cheese!”
“And did we not have fun?”
“IT BURNED DOWN.”
“AND DID WE NOT HAVE FUN?”
By the time the argument had come to a standstill Ash was rubbernecking beside Walker at his desk.
“I’m sorry,” the woman addressed Ash, her temper starting to cool, “who are you?”
“Ash MacRae,” she said, standing to shake the woman’s hand. “I keep the place from burning down."
The gesture wasn’t returned. The room fell silent, and the woman directed long looks at Fraction and Walker. Some part of what Ash said had crash landed.
“You two are unbelievable,” the woman said flatly. There was nothing of their expressions that was apologetic.
The woman moved to the doorway and stopped. She did know them. It would have been easier if whatever was happening was absurdist prank. There would be known limits to its effects. An exit strategy. This was an unknown quantity.
Once more, without anger, with the need to understand, she asked “What is this?”
Fraction spoke with a comparatively sober tone. “You’ll know by the end of the day.”
Moments after the woman left, Ash poked her head out the door to ensure they were out of earshot.
“So,” Ash started, “who was that woman?”
Walker had already either gotten back to work or appearing to work. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“That’s funny. The woman who was just here yelling at him,” she gestured to Fraction who’d somehow materialized a beer in his hand.
“Asshole,” Walker chided, “five PM!”
“It’s one beer,” Fraction said dismissively, taking a sip, “besides, I’m traumatized.”
Ash listened to them squabbling for another minute before realizing they’d managed to deflect her question altogether. Typically they told her everything, usually things she didn’t want to know. This had to be good.
“HEY,” she shouted. They froze, two kids in trouble with a babysitter. “Who. Was. That. Woman?”
The boys exchanged a glance. She had the door covered, and without parachutes the window wasn’t an option.
“There’s no buying our way out of this, is there,” Walker said.
She thought about it, then shook her head, grinning. “Let’s have it.”
“Esra Dawson,” Fraction said, resigned.
“Go on,” she said, reeling the story out of him.
Somewhere near Union Square, Adam ducked into a Starbucks. He bought a drink, something quick and cheap. It was left unattended on a table, just a sign he was a paying customer and to be left alone. Adam stepped into the washroom, locked the door, and began to cry uncontrollably.
The crying jags usually started earlier in the day, often right after he woke up. It was a wave of fear and hopelessness, as if God himself had cast a finger down from the sky to tell him that there was no future for him, no escaping the narrowing possibility of himself. There was never a trigger, no specific thought or event that incited these episodes. Like mitosis and commercials and train collisions, it just seemed to happen. He leaned against the locked door and let it move through him. He’d never been overtly emotional; to be this out of control was a terrible novelty, an unnerving tour of himself. When the feeling finally passed there was a sense of being drained and relieved. The cycle would start again the next day. But that was the future, and a dread he wouldn’t court recreationally.
Adam reappeared, walked past his drink, and headed up Union Square East.
Nate sat at his desk, staring into a blank screen expecting words of him. When Walker asked him for a pitch, he was really asking for a first draft; pages of work that would usually take a week in the space of five hours. Nate had long since, and not without some difficulty, learned that anxiety didn’t have any place in moments like this. Thought didn’t quite have a place there, just the next physical action.
“Nate, you’re not actually writing a first draft from scratch in one afternoon, are you,” Ash asked, having appeared in a chair beside him.
“Yes I am,” he said, committed.
“And you realize Walker was completely screwing with you when he asked you to do this, right?”
“…no, I didn’t. But, I think I want to try anyway.” He turned and smiled at her, totally unable to read the look on her face. She lit up sometimes when they talked, but he tried not to read too much into it. She was gorgeous, smart, and making a great deal more money than him. At twenty-two Nate was still a kid to some degree, sweet in that way the damage of most people’s lives disallowed. Nerve wasn’t one of his strongest traits, evident in that he hadn’t gone looking for his job at all. It had found him.
A second staff meeting was called in the afternoon, this time announced by a hungover, all-white mariachi band riddled with scabs and obvious dental issues. After atonally trudging through a song consisting of alternating shouts and grunts of the term “staff meeting” they remained in place, either unaware they were expected to leave or too disoriented to know what was happening. Before they were ushered out by security, a copy editor asked the bandleader for his card. The man wordlessly handed him a medic alert bracelet and shuffled off.
Ash and Nate watched from across the bullpen as the band left, paralyzed with laughter.
“What was that,” Nate asked, not fully processing what he’d witnessed.
“That,” Ash gushed, “was honest-to-God proof that we have the greatest jobs in the world.”
The staff piled into the conference room again, most of them nearly ready to go home for the day. Fraction and Walker stood at the head of the table waiting for quiet, surveying the room. Walker had won the coin toss to run the meeting, though the payoff wasn’t nearly as satisfying as announcing an armed primate.
“Good afternoon writers, visual-types, other non-gorillas. I’d like to personally apologize for the mariachi band; they were supposed to do a cover of “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. but had difficulty remembering the words to their own names.
“Effective immediately you have a new managing editor. He will be overseeing your work, ensuring it adheres to our mission statement, and all the other menial, pedestrian crap we can no longer reconcile doing with our fantastic wealth. While we will maintain a daily presence in the office, you will not speak to us unless spoken to. We are to be regarded as Gods and you will bring us shit from the vending machine the instant we ask for it.”
“You,” Fraction shouted at a staffer, “layout monkey! What is your name?”
“Anton,” he said hesitantly.
“Bring me a can of Uncle Fraction’s Horrible Death Cola!”
“I’m… is that a real thing,” Anton asked.
“It is HUGE in Paraguay and classified as a poison by the Food and Drug Administration, but I have stocked a vending machine with it anyway. Now go! Go before my unyielding terror ape fills you with anger holes!”
Jostled, Anton left in search of change with which to buy the potentially fictional cola. Sprinkles idled nearby, paging through an issue of Modern Bride.
Walker resumed. “If you absolutely must speak to us—don’t. You may approach Ash with any issues you may have, and she will either give us the gist of it, or shame you for wasting her time.”
“We congratulate you,” Fraction shouted, “on surviving one whole day of working with an armed gorilla without getting shot in the face, and wish you the best despite the statistical improbability of your luck holding up in that department. And so to you I say: excelsior, future monkey homicide victims!”
The new editor passed Fraction and Walker as they left, handling them with a kind of familiarity no one had ever seen demonstrated towards the boys.
“Afternoon, everybody. As your idiot bosses mentioned, I’ll be taking over their day to day responsibilities here. I’m up to speed on everyone’s workload and progress, so this should be a smooth transition. If you have any concerns about continuity, talk to me after this.
“The official reason for my presence is to lighten Fraction and Walker’s workload. They’ll be doing a lot of press in the near future as well as handling organizational responsibilities that will limit their ability to oversee editorial content. I took this job for two reasons. First, I wasn’t doing anything else this week, and second, this magazine was my idea to begin with.
“I’m Adam Black. Any configuration of that name will do just fine.”
Fraction, Walker, and Ash ate a late lunch on the roof of the building as Black Adam dealt with the staff. Months prior they’d found a means of shutting down the seven industrial air units atop the building so as to conduct audible conversations, but still hadn’t bothered to bring up a table. They ate off the ledge of the roof, Walker and Ash picking at salads, Fraction eating a series of hardboiled eggs.
“Does Black Adam seem alright to you guys,” Ash asked.
Walker gave it serious thought. “Not remotely, no.”
“Do you think it’s healthy for him to be doing this right now? I mean, this soon,” Ash said with some concern.
Walker gave it serious thought. “Absolutely not."
“Fraction,” she asked him to weigh in as he de-yolked an egg.
Ash sought clarity. “See, I’m not sure who you’re agreeing with.”
“You’re both saying the same thing,” Fraction said, unsure what she was looking for from him.
“Yeah, but I’m actually concerned,” Ash hastened to add.
Fraction held up a finger as he finished chewing his egg, demonstrating unprecedented table manners even in the absence of a table.
“He’s being productive. It’s not really healthy at all. It is the healthiest—it’s the best he can do right now. And we couldn’t keep him out if we wanted to anyway.”
There was silence until Walker took notice of the real issue. “Hey, what is it with you and eggs lately, anyway?”
“I joined the Egg Advisory Council last month. Eggs are getting killed in the media, you know.”
Ash was at a loss. “Why did you join the Egg Council, exactly?”
“Mostly so I could walk around saying I joined the Egg Advisory Council. I spent an hour last month trying to think of an absurd cause to take up, and eggs just felt right. Plus, you know, protein.”
“Getting any free eggs,” Walker asked.
“No, it’s total bullshit. So, now I’m stuck helping the American farmer and I don’t have anything to show for it. Usually when I do something for the American farmer, I get something in return.” Fraction lit a cigarette. “Like, y’know, cancer.”
Ash’s phone gave a text notification. “Hey,” she said, thumbing at the screen, “he’s on his way up.” They rose and made their way to the roof access. The boys looked as though it were Christmas morning, an expression typically reserved for hand puppet effigies, competitive grave robbing, and papal dead pools.
A path divided the bullpen, leading from the elevator to Fraction and Walker’s offices. They watched as Bill appeared from the elevator, advancing towards them without pause. He was livid, of course, but compartmentalized his rage. This was someone whose self-control began on a molecular level. Most men at sixty-five looked like slack, resigned versions of themselves. Though Bill had aged, time had only made him more wiry and taut. He’d begun his tenure with Lawlor and Franck as the executive editor of an automotive magazine. Twenty-five years later he’d willed himself to the position of CEO, a station he’d held for nearly a decade. Under Bill’s leadership Lawlor and Franck overshadowed competing houses, his achievements crystalized with L&F’s hostile takeover of the Hearst Corporation and its Midtown skyscraper. Practicing managerial techniques both ruthless and effective, he was feared and venerated to almost mythic proportions in the industry. There were rumours that he had once strangled an intern. With his mind.
Bill’s tolerance for bullshit was minimal, and as such he had little patience for Fraction and Walker. They were professionally useful, but their conduct had always been a liability. When he was made aware of irregularities in the test prints of the magazine’s first issue, it did not pain him to think he might have to cut them loose.
“Bill,” Walker exclaimed with pleasant surprise, “what’re you doing this far from the tower?” Bill shook their hands, playing at the same cordial veneer.
“We’re getting close to the big day,” Bill offered with encouragement, “I thought we might touch base.”
“That sounds great. Ash, can you hold our calls until we’re done meeting with Mr. McCutcheon?” Fraction affected a soft, affable tone, something he pulled out when he had to seem like a willing member of polite society; a parody of kindness. Ash, for the record, had never once handled their calls.
They ushered Bill into a small meeting room and Walker pulled back the curtains. The sun beamed in golden, sinking. The room would not retain its warmth. Bill’s cordiality evaporated some two seconds after they sat down, but left a smile behind.
“So, gentlemen, what exactly do you think you’re doing?”
They wore well-rehearsed looks of confusion.
“I’m… what do you mean, Bill?” Walker looked almost wounded. Feigning innocence was taxing.
“Well, I suppose I’m talking about the early copy of Alpha’s first issue that arrived on my desk this afternoon. While I certainly appreciate the efficiency in using stock materials, I’m at a loss for why the issue was nothing but hardcore pornography and repurposed Martha Stewart Living content. Please, explain this artifact to me.”
A grin crept onto Fraction’s face. “Well… it’s possible we haven’t been doing as we were told,” Fraction said.
“Elaborate,” Bill said, sounding conscious of each syllable.
Walker affected a tone of half-earnest regret.
“We may not be making the magazine you asked us to.”
“Oh?” Bill couldn’t fathom why they were being so forthcoming about their own career suicide, but there was no harm in taking mental notes for future litigation. “Then what have you been doing with the time and funds you were allotted?”
“God,” Walker said, “that’s kind of a long answer. Well, the first thing we did was throw out the concept, because it was, y’know, stupid. Instead we decided to do a magazine that focuses on dangerous ideas; the kind of stuff you could never get away with if oversight, accountability, and advertiser concerns were a factor. We spent an absurd amount of money hiring a staff that had to be bought out of expensive contracts, were all but blacklisted, or needed to be moved here from across the country. This place was a mess of cubicles and taupe walls when we moved in, so we renovated the hell out of it and gave our asshat art director a pretty sizeable studio to play in. What else… we changed the name of the magazine, brought in a new managing editor who’s just a little unstable lately, and hired a Starbucks barista as our second in command.”
“Oh, hey,” Fraction cut in, “Sprinkles, too.”
“Right. We also hired a guy in a gorilla outfit as our security,” Walker concluded.
The room was still, their admission settling in.
Bill took a moment to absorb all of this. “Just to be clear,” he said, “did you find someone in a gorilla costume and hire him as security, or did you hire someone for security and require them to wear a gorilla costume?”
“The latter,” Walker said. “Sorry, I could have been clearer about that.”
“I see. Well, gentlemen, I certainly have to give you some credit for the scope of the whole thing,” Bill said with something resembling admiration. “Stealing a magazine; it’s like putting wheels under the Statue of Liberty and carting it off. Figuring out how you’ve managed to keep this all a secret as long as you have will certainly be edifying; obviously the degree of oversight we practice is insufficient, and that will have to change. I am curious, though; did you seriously think you’d be able to get away with this?”
They seemed almost slighted by the question. “Get away with it? Bill, our first issue came out today.”
Early that morning, the newsstand down the street from 3 Park Ave had been stocked exclusively with one publication. By the time of Bill’s arrival, it had been made available in every major North American city. Its cover, a white custom sans-serif typeface against a red background, all but shouted at passersby. Bearing the name “The Subvertiser”, it carried just one other large piece of text across its face:
The cover, both a dare and an insult, was meant to draw people in. That one sentence was an affront to a continuum of messages ensuring a cycle of ease. It wasn’t alarmism or fear-mongering; those approaches always led back to the same place. It didn’t promise an impossible paradigm shift; people only measured real change in skylines. It wasn’t a ploy; it was a break in the pattern.
Bill may not have flinched when he found out about the magazine, but it gave him pause. He took a sip of his tea, collected his coat, and stopped in the doorway. Ever the picture of composure, his filter managed to convert “I’m going to gut you little bastards and wear your skins as cheap suits on alternate Tuesdays” into “This isn’t a career move you come back from, gentlemen.” Fraction and Walker looked at each other with a shrug. Who wanted to go back?
The magazine glared at Bill from every newsstand as his driver took him back to the Hearst building. Fraction and Walker had managed to keep it under wraps for a year. This meant more than the silence of two men and their staff. That they had succeeded signaled an infection of his organization, dozens of people at varying levels whose co-operation would be necessary to succeed with this subterfuge.
People who, no doubt, would have been provided with airtight plausible deniability. It was unlikely that ideologues and moles had seeped into the cracks of the company overnight; Fraction and Walker bought those people—his people-- and that couldn’t have been cheap. This meant one of two things; they were carrying out the will of some entity with tremendous influence, or worse, wielded it themselves.
Ash and Black Adam made their way into the conference room once Bill left the office.
“So. Should we start clearing out our desks?” Ash asked with mock concern.
Fraction was as smug as the laws of the universe allowed. “You know, there may be some irregularities in our contract that make our firing somewhat difficult.”
With the day a win, Fraction, Walker, and Black Adam celebrated at Forum, a high-end bar near Union Square. Though it had been years since all three were in the same room for anything bordering on celebratory, it felt as if no time had passed. Though that realization unnerved Black Adam, Fraction and Walker were on too great a high to notice. The better part of the preceding decade had been building towards that day for them; that they had gotten away with the first issue’s publication was only enhanced by Black Adam’s return to the fold and the look they’d put on Bill’s face. Their exuberance getting the better of them, they did little to temper the volume or tenor of their conversation so as to accommodate the other patrons.
“So he says ‘I AM THE JOHNNY APPLESEED OF COCAINE!’”, Fraction shouted, his arms raised in imitation.
Black Adam looked back at him expectantly. “And?"
“And then he did a line. Out of the gun barrel.”
“With the safety off,” Walker added.
Fraction took a swig of his beer. “So, suffice to say, that particular Build-a-Bear is closed now.”
They laughed, more glad of their company than caught up in the joke. After a quick visit from a waitress, the couple at the next table left with some haste. The boys sort of noticed. They sort of did not care.
“So what does tomorrow bring for you two assholes,” Black Adam asked.
“We’ve got an interview in the morning; trying to ingratiate ourselves to the media elite,” Walker said.
“How’d the staff meeting go,” Fraction asked through a mouthful of an omelet he’d ordered off-menu.
Black Adam wiped his hands with his napkin and tossed it at his place. “Apparently we got more done in an hour than you did in the last four months of staff meetings.”
Walker’s eyes pointed up as if to calculate. “…yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Most of them are where you need them to be. There are a couple of people I’d like to talk about bringing in, a couple I’d like to cut loose.”
“Specifically,” Fraction asked, finally affecting a no-nonsense tone.
“There’s a sharp dip in the quality of Waxman’s second piece. I can think of a couple people I’d like in his place that would get the mission statement and not have the same problems with consistency. Cassaday’s behind on his deadline, and he’s not exactly your MVP. I’ve been talking to Lee Arsenault, she’s got a piece she’s been sitting on for a few months that would work for us. Let’s axe Cassaday, buy Arsenault’s piece, commission her for another, and see if bringing her on full-time is the right way to go. You also took Costa off the Kerr interview, which I don’t disagree with, but you also never found a replacement.
“I want to talk about Adler, too. We’re hanging a lot on a twenty-two year old.”
“We agreed from the start that the NES material needed to come from an uninitiated perspective,” Fraction said.
“There are any number of other writers you could put on this who could actually deal with the microscope you’re going to put this kid under. I don’t want to get to issue four and have him bolt because he can’t handle his own visibility,” Black Adam replied, annoyed at the thought.
“He arrived at the concept of the NES independently,” Fraction said. “An experienced writer is worthless to me in the face of having somebody who came to this on their own, who’s working it out on the page.” “When I talk about being under a microscope, I think you—“
Black Adam stopped, realizing his voice had begun to carry. He turned around to find the entire bar was suddenly vacant. The patrons and servers had quietly left, the music drawn down slowly. Refrigerators hummed, muted televisions expelled soft white noise, traffic in the streets pushed air around. Beyond that, silence.
“There it is,” Walker said.
A man in his mid-fifties eased open the front door, the night air plunging in with him. There was a lengthy stroll between the door and the boys’ table, enough for silhouettes to become shaded, to become detailed, to become obvious. He was tall, thin, head shaven, and wearing what really was an incomparable suit. They boys had already resumed eating and drinking by the time he sat down at their table, affording him the same reverence they might dust particles. A full thirty seconds passed with a silence hanging over the table.
“Well, you three have certainly been busy,” the man said. “I won’t say I’m not impressed. Even I didn’t see this coming, and I still check up on you now and then. Oh, and my sympathies, by the way, Mr. Black.”
Black Adam nodded up and down, his expression tart. “That means a lot coming from someone who actually had me hanged once.”
The man grinned a slit. Touché. “So does Bill McCutcheon know how far it goes yet? I mean, you didn’t just slide a twenty into a printers pocket for this. Insulating yourselves against someone like that would mean a pretty severe corruption of his company. And you’d have to pay off hundreds of people, some already quite wealthy, to keep him in the dark. That would cost millions—literally, millions—of dollars.”
“It might,” Walker admitted, lips otherwise sealed.
“I am curious to find out how three magazine editors came into such fantastic wealth.”
Fraction gave a glib look and a shrug. “The derivatives market? By the way, how did you get past our security?”
Just outside the front door five men stood watch over Sprinkles, beaten and lying on the sidewalk. He couldn’t move, but something in the dead, black eye sockets of his gorilla costume articulated his desperate need for medical attention.
“Brass tacks-- today you indirectly announced your intent to undermine everything we do. Moreover, you demonstrated that you might actually have the means to do some actual damage. So you’re a credible threat. Now, credible threats get three options. The first is coming to work for us if you’re not a useless ideologue. The second is shutting down and walking away. The third is being unceremoniously killed. You could be useful as assets or innocuous off the radar, but credible threats do not get to go on drawing breath.”
“You think we’re coming after you,” Walker said..
“I know you’re coming after us,” the man replied matter-of-factly.
“We’re after the superstructure, not the base. This isn’t a frontal assault on the way you do business,” Fraction said.
The man closed his eyes, gathering himself for a moment before trying to put the conversation back on track.
“I’m here as a courtesy. We’re offering you the chance to do something worthwhile, or at least walk away from a meaningless pursuit before you end up being prematurely cremated.”
“No, you’re here to assess your situation,” Black Adam said, picking at the man’s veneer of omnipotence. “Otherwise we’d have disappeared into another van and never come out of it.”
“I’m curious,” the man said, baffled “about your approach to this. Why are you so convinced you’re in a position to negotiate with me?”
Black Adam spoke, motionless beyond his lips, his eyes fixed on the man’s face.
“Because we have Article A, Mr. Proctor.”
The man, whose name was Robert Proctor, whose name the boys were not supposed to know, demonstrated an almost imperceptible twitch.
Proctor spoke in a tone that might be convincing to anyone not at that table. “Do you have aphasia or something? Because I know all of those words, but they’re not making a lot of sense in that order.”
Fraction began a recitation. “One, zero, zero, one, zero, one, one--“
“Stop,” Proctor cut him off, as if the words lit a fuse. “Stop.”
Proctor fell silent, desperate to retain his footing. He cursed himself for having given an inch.
“I can offer you a reprieve,” he said.
“I can offer you a spectrum of catastrophe by releasing Article A into the open air,” Fraction retorted, unimpressed by an offer of mere postponement.
“You won’t,” Proctor waved off the notion, gathering his wits. “You’ve thought through the consequences. You wouldn’t put that document out into the world.”
“Proctor, I am sexually excited by the idea of doing you irreparable harm, and I have no problem with whatever that piece of paper might bring about. Give me a fucking excuse.” Fraction stared into Proctor unblinkingly. He meant a distressing percentage of what he’d said.
“You’ve got a bargaining chip. You don’t own the house all of a sudden,” Proctor said pointedly. He stood up, leaving his card on the table. “I can offer you a reprieve because that’s all this buys you. There will be a reaction. And while I’m off thinking of a way to take your legs out, I’d remind you that your magazine has taken aim at some spectacularly wealthy people who don’t much care for being publicly embarrassed. If Wall Street or Big Pharma decides they want you disappeared, that’s not my problem.”
“I certainly hope not,” Walker said. “We love being your problem.”
The boys went their separate ways from the bar. Fraction made for his apartment nearby in Midtown, Walker returned to the office to get his car, and Black Adam Walked back to the Lower East Side.
At home, Fraction settled into his office, a room consisting of a desk, a computer, and walls completely covered in notes. Five minutes into writing, a brick crashed through one of the windows. He leaned his head just to the left of his monitor to verify the objects presence on the floor, and then went back to work. Moments later a second brick came through the window, leaving a second hole in the glass.
“See, now I’m starting to think the first one wasn’t an accident,” he said aloud.
Fraction resumed typing, not particularly interested in cleaning up a mess just then. His concentration was disrupted a moment later as a continuous stream of bricks sailed through his windows, cacophonously scraping every bit of glass from the frames. When all had finally settled, the sound of wind and traffic lightly invaded the room. Fraction reached for his phone and called Walker.
Walker’s steps echoed through the parking garage across the street from the office as he took Fraction’s call.
“Fucking what,” Walker answered.
“You don’t think we made a mistake here, do you,” Fraction asked.
Walker searched his pockets for his keys. “I don’t think anything I’ve ever done has been a mistake.” Upon clicking the remote start, his car exploded in front of him. “Huh. I’m going to have to call you back.”
Wordlessly, Fraction hung up with a shrug, paused, and then dialed another number.
“Hi, is this Jersey Masonry? Yeah, I wanna sell some bricks.”