Sunday, August 07, 2005

And we're off! (Merchandise- Week 1, draft 1)

I was explaining the premise of this story to one of my friends. His response: "oh, so it's like social commentary?" It's not really supposed to be, actually, it's just an idea I had, but I suppose that the commentary is inevitable. Commentary on the ending and how I'm thinking of linking everything together (it's unfinished at the moment) is at the end. I have a bunch of ideas I want to work in but I'm not sure how. I suspect that this is going to turn out to be a much longer piece than I have here. Also, the opening will take some retooling, as I was initially intending this to take place in a former Soviet country, so the Square doesn't feel particularly like it belongs in the US.

Also, 'Merchandise' isn't really an appropriate title for this, now it's written, though I hope I've hewed close enough to it as a subject (what with the guns/entertainment/drugs being peddled).
Without further ado:

(for now)
Draft 1

There’s an explosion just outside. John cocks his head; a grenade, he decides, not even pausing as he makes his way to the table nearest the three-inch-thick, blast-proof glass. The table is perhaps the best in the restaurant, right up against the glass, affording a panoramic view of the bullet-scarred, pockmarked open square that is at the center of the conflict between government forces and populist militia. There is a statue in the center of the square, broken; it had been an angel, triumphal, right hand grasping a sword, raised in victory, hair flowing behind it as in a stiff breeze. The shield in its left hand had, unfortunately, not proven strong enough to repel the impact of a shell from an ancient tank that the militia had somehow managed to get its hands on. The angel’s legs remain as they have always been, strongly muscled, set in a heroic, victorious pose; the upper portions of its body are scattered around it in various states of disintegration. Just now, there is a small but furious firefight raging in the square; a trio of militia types, dressed in mismatched civilian clothes and urban camo, are pinned down behind the statue, taking heavy fire from a small detachment of government troops who are sheltered in one of the four streets leading into the square. From John’s vantage point, it is obvious that the militia types are completely fucked. They are fucked even if the government forces do not do the obvious, which is send a few of their number up onto a rooftop, or around the square to outflank, through the numerous alleyways around here that make this such a hellish urban combat zone. The militiamen are dead; no question about it. It’s not worth watching.

To John, at least. The quartet of European businessmen arrayed around the table with their young, attractive trophy wives or secretaries or mistresses are positively eating this shit up. They are watching in rapt attention, the businessmen whistling appreciatively and the women tittering and swooning dutifully when one of the militiamen goes down, shot in the shoulder. He’s down but not out, John sees, and he feels a certain admiration for the man, who has fallen out of cover, as he yells soundlessly and empties his rifle at his assailants, even as half a dozen bullets slam into his chest. He shudders and lies still.
“Ho ho!” chuckles one of the businessmen, a rotund man in a suit that probably costs more than John makes in a year. “Wouldn’t want to be in that poor bastard’s skin, eh?” he says, with a wink to John.

“No, sir,” John says with a wan smile and a polite laugh. “My name is John, I’ll be your server today. Can I start you off with a round of drinks?” The men order Scotches, gin and tonics, the women, endearingly feminine mixed drinks. As he sets off towards the bar, John glances out the window a final time. The militia men have, as he predicted, been fucked. Only one is still visibly alive as half a dozen government soldiers warily move into the square. He is writhing feebly on the ground in a pool of his own blood, his life dropping away from him with each struggle; dropping away, John thinks, somewhat irrationally, like a snake shedding its skin. As he turns away from the subtle carnage of the square, John is struck by a thought: the last thing this man will see, beneath a sky that is shadowed and overcast, and bracketed on two sides by ruined buildings, is a sign- neon, with fanciful renditions of explosions in red and yellow, and saying, in blue letters that blaze through the smoke and noise and death that swirl through Angel Square, The Battle Cafe.

On his way to take a cigarette break- not outside, due to the high risk of violent death, but in a cunningly ventilated room designed for the purpose- John passes Johannson’s office. Stuart Johannson is the proprieter of the Cafe, a slim, dark man in his forties whose hair is just beginning to show hints of grey. He is currently on the phone; John pauses as he slouches by, listens to Johannson’s conversation, which, as usual, is fairly one sided.

“-fight today was great, just great. We had a group of lawyer types, some diplomats, not too crowded, but a nice crowd. Listen, fella, they positively ate it up. They loved it. Thanks a lot. I mean thanks a real bunch. Always a pleasure to work with you. But look, we’ve got a group of oil magnate types flying in this Friday, I was wondering if you couldn’t put on a bigger show. Maybe get some rockets involved or something- you guys have rockets, don’t you? If you don’t, I can get some for you, just say the word. I was thinking maybe you could ambush a patrol or something- I happen to know one’s coming through the Square at five o’clock in the pm Friday. Maybe you could set your boys up in some of the buildings around the square, hit ‘em when they’re in the open...”

Johannson is an arms dealer, a formerly small-time gangster and drug-runner who found himself in the midst of a small revolution and decided to make it larger. He started out selling weapons to both sides, and then, a few months into the war, came up with the idea for the Café. Angel Square was already a hotbed of fighting, in the center of the city, but gradually Johannson managed to turn it into a regularly-scheduled bloodsport for the enjoyment of his patrons.
It works like this: Johannson doesn’t have to deal with the government, other than to kick back a bit of his profits to keep them looking the other way from a restaurant blatantly set up to capitalize on the destruction of the country. He realized early on that the government troops would go wherever the revolutionaries went, so it was a simple matter of ensuring that rebels use the square a lot. He accomplished this through the simple expedient of bribery– guns and a percentage of his profits, on the condition that the opposition fight to defend the square. Over time, he has cultivated contacts in the government; which is how he is able to engineer conflicts in view of the café on a regular schedule.

John finds it absolutely heinous, the number of high-powered business-types who come through here. It makes no sense to him: they should find violence repellant, not glorify it. To a certain extent he understands how powerful men must feel about the less powerful (and also the potential allure to foreigners of seeing, firsthand, what America has fractured into) – but it’s one thing to see men as pawns, quite another thing entirely to enjoy watching them die. It’s like he works in a restaurant designed for serial killers.
That thought stops him for a minute– how long, he muses, till Johannson offers his clientele the opportunity to, say, take potshots at soldiers in the midst of a firefight? With a grim smile, John decides that the idea has already occurred to Johannson, and that he has dismissed it– not for its obvious repellance, but rather because it would endanger the delicate balance he has created between his operation and the various factions hell-bent on killing each other.

John sighs out a cloud of cigarette smoke. Righteous indignation only goes so far when you work for the people you loathe.
He watches the smoke curl up, swirl through the room’s criss-crossing air currents, and hears someone come in. It’s her.
The situation with John and Alison is this: they have not yet fucked, yet. John likes to think ‘yet,’ likes to think the two of them fucking is an inevitability, but really, she has not shown a whole lot of interest. She’s nice to him, at least, and she’s got an accent that reminds him of home.

“Hey, John,” she says wearily. It's a Kansas drawl and it's like someone flicked a switch: he can see home. It's not, he can't help but think, what the midwest should look like: urban sprawl has slowly covered the flat fields, and the hills he should be able to see in the distance are blocked by skyscrapers and smog. It's not what it should be, but it's home.

She is, of course, wearing the female counterpart to his urban-camo tuxedo: it involves a good deal less fabric than his. John has trouble resolving his feelings about the women’s outfits at the Café. On the one hand, it’s clear the women are meant to be eye candy. This wouldn’t ordinarily bother him unduly, but he dislikes feeling that Alison is being degraded. On the other hand, Alison in revealing clothes is way easier to imagine naked than Alison in a tuxedo. Especially a camoflage tuxedo.

"And how are the bastards today?" he asks with a wry smile.

She collapses into a chair next to him. "Oh, you know," she says. "Offering me jobs as personal assistants. Asking me what a nice girl like me's doing in a place like this, offering to whisk me away and fulfill my wildest dreams." She roots around in her handbag for a pack of cigarettes. "The horny fuckers."

“What are we doing in this place, though?” he asks, not really directing the question at her, as he lights her cigarette for her.

“Damned if I know.”

“I’m a bastard who never had a future. What’s your excuse?”

She sighs. “I dunno. I guess I ran away from things at home and this is as far as I got."

"Yeah, I can relate."

He wonders why she actually took this job, though, since she hasn't actually told him. Given that the job market in these parts is not particularly booming, he suspects it was a choice between this, prostitution, and the military.

"I'm not going to be here too long, though. Just until I make enough money to get myself someplace worthwhile."

He finds her niavete painful and endearing at the same time. Of course she isn’t going to get out. Johannson will never let her. John wonders how long it will take before Johannson propositions her, and wonders what the results will be. Probably not pretty.

John himself is not sure how he feels about being in it for the long haul. There is, of course, the dubious morality of what he is doing, but the scads of cash that come with the job go a long way towards making him look the other way. Of course, one of the problems with being in shitty, war-torn former-pockets-of-America is that, even if you have scads of cash, there aren’t a whole lot of places to use it. And, of course, there is always the high risk of the job– John fully expects rebel soldiers to come charging in any day, guns blazing. Which is why he has an escape plan set. It's not a good plan, but it's a plan.

He stands up heavily. "Break time's over for me... see you around." And it's back to work.

The next few weeks are– well, exciting isn't precisely the word John would use, but it's close enough. The fighting escalates; there's a particularly brutal skirmish in the square involving dozens of fighters on either side, a lot of bullets, rockets, a few weaponized cars and ancient SUVs, and a tank. John isn't sure how much Johannson has to do with it, but it looks like he at least knew it was coming. On the day of the skirmish, a giant cadre of businessmen, Very Important People, and their families, from a number of neighboring nation-states, descend on the cafe and stay there all day, drinking in the bloodshed.
The table John serves all day are assholes, as usual. It's a couple of families, fat men in suits and skinny wives who have had too much plastic surgery and– John is only mildly surprised at this– their children, who John, from the instant he sees them, would dearly like to slap. The men keep calling him 'son' or 'Johhny boy'; the women call him 'sir' with exagerrated, sarcastic formality. He expands his desire to slap the children and applies it to the women, too, deciding also that slapping is not adequate for the men, and that he'd rather punch them in the face. He thinks he's hiding his dislike well– he has enough experience in it, anyway– but he gets the impression they can tell it's annoying him, and that they're continuing to do it just to rankle him.

That impression is confirmed at the end of the day, skirmish over, after-dinner drinks consumed (the kids whine about not being given alcohol to no end; John has to laugh at where these particular rich fucks have chosen to draw the line). John heads over to collect the check. He turns and is about to walk away when one of the men stops him.
"Hang on, son." His face is red, his words slurring just barely noticeably. "You've done a good job." He reaches into an inside pocket of his coat and pulls out his wallet, a monstrous black leather thing tooled with gold, and removes some bills from it. From the look of them, they are hundred-Yuan notes, which means that there's probably more money in the man's hand than John makes in several days. The man holds it out to him. John reaches for it slowly. As his fingers are about to close around it, the man lets go. The bills flutter to the floor. John glares at the man for a long moment. The man is chuckling quietly, his whole body shaking. Everyone else at the table is smiling.

Ever-so-slowly, not taking his eyes off the man, John bends down and gathers up the bills. Ten of them. He stands, equally slowly.

"Go on, son," says the man with a broad drunken grin. "You earned it."

Stiffly, John places the bills on the table. The man's smile fades, replaced by something ugly.

"I believe you dropped this, sir," says John, and then he spins crisply on his heel and strides away, not looking back.

Johannson is pissed, of course. He summons John to his office the next day, red-faced and furious. "What the fuck did you mean by that stunt you pulled yesterday, you little prick? The man whose generosity you scorned is very, very importand and very, very rich, and he is not happy with you. Not fucking happy! And neither," he says on reflection, "am I!"

John lets him rant, puts a cowed look on his face, mumbles that he's sorry, assures Johannson that it won't happen again. Finally Johannson loses steam. John is surprised to see him smiling. "That being said, I admire you for standing up to that man. He really is a prick." His face hardens again. "But if you ever do something like that again, I'll shoot you in the face. Now get out of my office. Take the rest of the day off. I'll see you at work tomorrow."

John wanders back up to his room– all employees are housed in the same building as the Cafe– desperately in need of a drink. He has underestimated Johannson, he realizes; he didn't credit the man with being so ruthless. He should have realized, he supposes, given the game the man was playing.

Reaching his room, he pours himself a glass of cheap whiskey and downs it in a gulp, then pours another and falls backwards onto his bed. The springs creak.

(Big jump. Will fill in when I figure out how.)

John’s standing, hands folded behind his back like an at-ease soldier, waiting to fawn over a party of oil magnates who are arriving in a few minutes, when the phone rings. Most of the phone lines go directly to Johannson’s office or to one of his secretaries, but Johannson likes maintaining the appearance of a normal restaurant, and so he has a phone out here too. John always assumed it was for the sake of appearance. He has never heard it ring before. Warily, he picks up the receiver.
The voice on the phone speaks in English, with a soft southern accent. “May I speak to Mr. Johannson?”
“No, he’s stepped out for a while. He said he’d be back in two hours.”

“You give him a message,” drawls the man cheerfully. “You tell him, we’re tired of his shit. Mr. Drake may have had an arrangement with him, but we’ve- er- relieved Mr. Drake of his command. Tell your boss we’ll no longer do business with him. We know about his fucking café. He’s turned a war of principle into a fucking reality TV shot. Tell him we’re coming for him. Tell him he’s fucked.”

John stubs his cigarette out on the desk beside the phone. It leaves a small black scorch mark. He stares at his sleeve for a long moment, tracing the patterns in the urban camo of his tuxedo. Then he turns around, still holding the phone, and takes a long look out across the restaurant, at the corporate fucks in their thousand-dollar suits, with their tittering, vacuous trophy wives. He suddenly realizes why the rebels called this particular phone line– they looked it up in the phone book. This, after all, used to be a normal café, back when this was a normal neighborhood, back when it was in a normal country.
“Tell you what,” John says. “He’s a big fan of killing the messenger, you know? And I mean literally kill. As in, he might shoot me. So I’m not really comfortable saying all that to him.” He smiles, imagining the man’s expression on the other end of the line, and keeps talking before he can protest. “Why don’t you come over here and tell him yourself?” What about Alison? Would she come away with him? He supposes he’ll find out sooner, rather than later; and really, what does it matter if she does or not? “I’ll leave the door open for you.”


Anyway, I'm not sure how to link the ending to the rest of the story; I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to have to change it entirely (which I really don't want to do, since it's one of the first things I came up with). Alternately, I might make the things piling up on John less overtly make him want to leave (ie no death threats), so that when the opportunity arises, he's just like "Oh. Oh well, I guess I'll leave, fuck all this bullshit."