The first rule is that the company has no name. It has no website or social media presence. It does not pay taxes or Social Security. In a crowded bar near the Providence train station, you drink a beer with the guy who recruited you and neither of you refer to your employer. The Old Ones listen to everything, and their torture racks are hungry for victims. Remember Rodriguez? Raise your glass but don’t say his name.
The second rule is that the company will not pay in checks or direct deposit. A stranger will slip a moldy envelope of cash into your pocket when you’re walking in a crowd. In the moment before delivery you might spot a possible co-worker—a dour teenager with black hair, a businessman with silver eyeglasses—and feel a tingle of connection, the thrill of being part of something larger than yourself. You haven’t felt that since the war. Moments later the stranger is gone and the money is a tangible weight against your thigh, but don’t pull it out until you’re home (see sub-rule (b) below).
You never see the same courier twice. Given the extraordinary frequency of molecular change in the human body and inevitable withering of the human soul, no one actually ever sees anyone twice.
Don’t worry; no one here is getting paid to think about metaphysics.
The second rule includes sub-rule (a), which is that you will never know when your salary will be paid. The schedule is a mystery. There is no Human Resource department to call for information. The uneven flow of money makes it hard to budget, but your kind and understanding wife has three part-time, unenviable jobs. Each month you string enough together to pay for rent, utilities, and a dozen other line items on the budget form they made you fill out at the food stamps office. Things are tough, what with the baby coming and all.
Things will always be tough. Because you have no supervisor, you can’t ask for a raise. Comfort yourself with the platitude that a job well done is its own reward.
(Your nasty landlord doesn’t accept platitudes as payment for rent. Your wife’s mother expects birthday presents and Mother’s Day presents and Christmas presents, and they must always be wrapped with pretty paper and ribbons hand-tied in artful bows. Your wife curls up beside you in bed with her hand on her growing belly and says the child is the only gift she needs, but it’s a gift that brings her swollen feet and backaches and fear of the future.)
Sub-rule (b) of rule two is that sometimes your money will come speckled with blood, fresh or dry. It is your responsibility to scrub it off with an old toothbrush or scrape it off with your thumbnail before you pass the bills to your tired wife, the exhausted waitress in the bar, or the cashier at the corner store with his sad eyes and immigration problems.
Sub-rule (c) is that sometimes there’s a note in the envelope instructing you to pass the money to a random stranger within twenty-four hours or face a terrible fate. This is not a prank. Don’t hold back even a single dollar. They say Rodriguez tried that, to buy his girlfriend groceries, and see what it got him.
The third rule of the company, and this is less a rule than an operating philosophy, is that your medical problems are your own damn fault. You squint at the computer too much and get headaches; you eat pizza too much and get indigestion; you sit in the apartment all day waiting to be called for assignments (playing computer games, eating that pizza) and your cholesterol only gets worse. You should treat your blood pressure problem with nutrition. You should work out the pain in your leg (the shrapnel inside aches in the rain) with yoga. The doctors at the V.A. clinic are no help; always too busy, always too understaffed and ill-equipped.
If while working for the Old Ones you take a bullet, get cut by a knife, or suffer some other severe injury, an elderly doctor with cold hands and no compassion will come to your apartment while your wife is working and do the best he can. He won’t take your money, but he’ll down a shot of whiskey before he doffs his hat and trudges out into the rainy night.
Your wife’s pre-natal care is a different matter, however. The company has arranged for her to be treated in a clean, efficient office with pleasant physicians and a receptionist who always remembers her name. The doctors are keenly interested in the health of your unborn child. They want your wife to take vitamin pills. She tries to demur, saying that they make her nauseated and give her constipation. They insist. Beyond the window, the university bells ring the noon hour against the gray skies.
Your wife thinks her care is being paid for by social services. Don’t let her discover otherwise.
The fourth rule, although certainly the rules aren’t numbered in any book or manual, is that when your phone rings you must answer it. Any time of day or night, you are on call. A voice will tell you to drive out to North Seekonk, go to the old dye plant, and burn the corpse inside along with the hospital sheets it’s wrapped in. Be sure to shower before you go to bed so that your wife doesn’t smell gasoline and death. Another voice might tell you to go to a bar on Snow Street and drop a tiny white pill in a man’s drink while he’s distracted by the cleavage of a beautiful woman beside him. You don’t stay long enough to see her lure him out the back door to an alley and a black van.
One night, a voice instructs you to meet a man who gives you a duffel bag to throw off the Boston and Providence railroad bridge into the Ten Mile River. You aren’t allowed to look inside the bag. As you swing the weight up into the air you think you hear something small and helpless and suffering inside, but it’s too late to stop the arc. Momentum is a bitch.
All humans are small and helpless and suffering. You either endure it or sink into the river.
On another day, a different voice insists you make your wife take her vitamins. You married her after high school, when a successful future still seemed possible. Surely, your hard work and determination would keep you from the dead-end, backbreaking jobs done by your alcoholic father. When your wife looks at you, she sees who you were then—strong, determined, full of good intentions—and not the man who went to war and came back choked by nightmares, poisoned by trauma. You tell her she should take the vitamins. She trusts you.
Rule five is that you must attend the annual Christmas party. Spouses not invited, formal attire required. The location is one of those enormous Newport mansions overlooking Rhode Island Sound, but not the kind that have been turned into museums or placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This mansion is decrepit and gloomy, lit by yellow gas lamps that hiss out warnings and staffed by a solemn butler wearing ankle chains.
When you walk through the rooms of old furniture, you’re all alone. In a silver mirror you might catch a glimpse of a dour teenager or blank-faced businessman, or maybe Rodriquez with his eyes plucked out. The old Christmas record spinning on a turntable sounds warped and too slow as low notes float out over the stone terrace and black ocean. Hungry eyes watch from behind broken windows as the butler offers you a glass of wine as dark as the sea.
Our lords will see you soon, he says.
But then the police arrive, their flashlight beams bouncing off the dust-covered mirrors of unfurnished and empty rooms, their hip radios squawking with news of this break-in, and you escape along a rocky path with the salty wind tugging at your suit lapels.
When you get home, your sweet wife is in tears. She found an envelope of money under the bathroom sink and wants to know what shady business you’re into that you get paid in rumpled cash. She’s sure it must be illegal drugs or gun smuggling. She feels betrayed. You tell her you’re glad to finally come clean: you work for one of those underground fantasy football leagues the governor is cracking down on. You promise to quit and instead use your army benefits to go to college.
She falls asleep appeased. A new chapter in your lives is beginning. How happy you will be.
Rule seven: education matters. A new voice on the phone encourages you to attend class diligently, but sit in the back and keep quiet. Don’t make eye contact with your teacher. Ignore your classmates. You like the university, with its courts and greens and quadrangles. You like pretending you belong there. The only bad part is when you see Rodriguez’s sister working in a coffee shop. She asks you about her brother, but of course you have no news. She tells you about his girlfriend, who was carrying his child. She vanished from the hospital after giving birth to a sickly infant. The baby is missing as well.
Rule eight is easy: deny everything. When the police come from North Seekonk about a fire and charred corpse, deny. When they ask you if you knew a reporter last seen in a bar with a beautiful woman, deny. When they want to talk about a duffel bag pulled from a river, remind them you have a lawyer. Your lawyer is the twin brother of the doctor who makes home visits, and he has a way of walking into a judge’s office and then emerging with the exact decision he wanted. He doesn’t take money from you, but he’ll let you buy him whiskey in a bar.
When your wife asks you why her mother saw you at the court house, explain that you were doing a term paper for your criminal justice class. Tell her you earned an A.
Rule nine: appearances are deceiving. In a dark room you and your wife watch the sonogram technician press a wand along the curve of your wife’s belly. On the monitor above, the fuzzy lines resolve into a healthy fetus with a strong heartbeat. Your wife laughs with happiness. Your heart grows big with pride. But then your jittery leg brushes aside the sheet hiding a second monitor positioned under the bed. On that, different images emerge: a shape like a wing, a hand like a claw.
The thing inside your wife opens its eyes to stare at you with unholy bright orbs. Its mouth opens in a howl.
“What is that?” you demand, and the friendly technician turns cold. She adjusts the sheet.
“It’s broken,” she says.
Your wife lifts her head, her blue eyes puzzled. “What’s what?”
“It’s not right,” you tell the technician. Your voice and hands shake as you stand. Your chair skitters backward. “What did you do to her?”
“What’s wrong?” your wife asks, and then shrieks as a long pointed limb rises up underneath her taut skin. Her shrieks become screams. The limb becomes a dagger. The technician hits an alarm and the staff rushes in, but not before bright blood splatters up to the ceiling and along the walls.
You try to help, but hands grab your arms. A syringe stabs you in the neck. Just before everything goes dark, you hear a doctor say, “Make it look plausible.”
Rule ten: Everything is a lie. You never went to war. You don’t have a wife. The guy you think recruited you to a non-existent company is a panhandler who sits outside the train station every day, begging quarters from harried and indifferent commuters. Rodriguez died in high school that night you two drank too many beers and tried to cross the railroad bridge on foot. His only sister moved to Albuquerque soon afterward.
The company has no name. The shrapnel in your leg aches in the rain.
You walk around campus with a loaded pistol in your pocket. Your phone rings. A calm voice, detailed and precise, tells you what to do next.