“I’m a computer programmer! I’m not stupid.”
Riva says, “You were a programmer … back in the States. Now you are just another stupid American tourist. Anyway, you might be smart with computers, but in real life, you are a complete idiot. All large, multi-national corporations have their own off-the-books crew of spies like me. Never heard of corporate espionage?”
“You’ve got a funny way of influencing people,” I say. “You threaten and insult the hell out of them. Does that work for you? Maybe they should send you to charm school, or at least salesmanship 101.”
“Did I mention the part about becoming someone’s bitch? You are not bad looking. Not good looking, either. Definitely not good looking. But not bad. Relatively young, but still too old for me. Soft white skin. Virgin.”
“I’m no virgin!” I protest. “And I’m only two years older than your old boyfriend Christian!”
Riva says, “Really? You look a lot older. I mean, like ten years older.”
I scowl, which doesn’t make me look any younger.
“And I would assume your asshole is virgin?” she adds. “You will be very popular in prison.”
I cringe at the thought. She has me convinced.
“At least tell me who these people are that I’m blowing up.”
“Very bad people,” she repeats. “They use slave labor. Child labor.”
“So we blow them up? How does that help?”
She gives no answer.
“Can I at least tell them to get out first?” I ask.
“Does a bank robber tell everyone to get out of the bank first?” Riva counters.
“I’ve seen that happen, yes,” I say.
“On television, maybe. This is not television! See what I mean about stupid?”
“I am really starting to dislike you,” I say. And that makes her smile.
That night we board a small plane to somewhere. I have no idea where. We’re only in the air a few minutes, so cannot have gone far. My internal compass tells me we’re flying west, so we’re probably flying east.
Upon landing, there is an SUV waiting for us on the tarmac. A man standing next to the vehicle tosses the keys to Riva and disappears. And, through the jungle in a driving rainstorm, we go. Where she stops, nobody knows.
She points through the windshield after several minutes. “There it is.”
“There what is?” I ask. The rain is so heavy I can barely make out large red letters on something in front of us. It is only when the rain lets up momentarily that I see that the letters on the wall are “MCK.” It appears to be an industrial building, a factory, I guess, just a hundred feet away in the clearing.
Riva parks us behind an outcropping to hide from anyone looking out from the factory. She then casually pulls out a vest wired with explosives, and says, “Here, put this on.”
“No way!” I say. “Just shoot me now. I am not a suicide bomber.”
Pulling out one wire, with a laugh, Riva explains it to me. “I am pulling out this wire. With this disconnected, there is no way it can blow up. When you get down there, just put this wire back in, hang the vest on the back of a chair or something, and I blow up the building remotely from here … after you either signal me or you just come back here.”
I say, “No. As soon as I put that wire back in, that’s when it blows up.”
“It won’t blow up on its own,” Riva is getting impatient. “It needs to be detonated with a remote. I don’t know all the science behind it, but I do know that much.”
I say, “Prove it. Put that wire back in right now. If we’re not blown to smithereens, I will believe you. And if we are, well, it has been a pain in the ass knowing you.”
She laughs and puts the wire back in place. I squeeze my eyes shut, only to peek out and see her smirking. I resume breathing when the wire is back in and we are still in one piece.
“Where’s the remote?” I ask.
She holds it up.
I say, “Wait, I thought I was supposed to plant that.”
Riva says, “Changed my mind.”
“Wait,” I stall again. “Don’t I at least get a gun?”
“So you can shoot me?” she says. “No.”
“I won’t shoot you, I promise!” I sound like a kid.
Shaking her head, she says, “Just go … before I shoot you!”
There is a rocky, unpaved trail leading down to the factory buildings. Wearing night-vision goggles, with my “cool” new vest under a dark green rain slicker, I walk slowly down toward my target.
It’s a surreal experience; like a dream where everything is out of place and juxtaposed. As I am hopping down the bunny trail, convinced that I will soon be meeting my maker, the old Hall & Oates song “Man-Eater” comes to mind. I start singing.
Oh-oh here she comes
Watch out boy, she’ll blow you up
Oh-oh here she comes
She’s a man-eater
The man-eater watches from afar through her own night-vision binoculars as Alex enters the factory through its unguarded and apparently unlocked front door. When he does not reappear immediately, she shakes her head. “Stupid.”
Inside the building now and out of Riva’s sight, I find a row of gym lockers. I choose the most personalized locker, the one with all the stickers on it. I don’t know why. Because it stands out, I guess. “That’s what you get for standing out,” I say softly, instantly regretting my words.
Ever so gingerly, I drop the vest inside and close the locker door. Literally tip-toeing away, I shake my head in disbelief at the entire experience.
Turning a corner, I come upon a man, some sort of supervisor, behind his desk. Shit! From there, the man can oversee his entire staff as they assemble what looks like electronic components. At the moment, however, he is focused on paperwork on his desk.
Among his workers, I do not see any child laborers, slave or otherwise, as Riva had promised. I consider sneaking back to the locker, disabling the vest bomb, and running as fast as I can, away from Riva.
But she would probably anticipate that, and be waiting for me on the other side. If I can get everyone to run screaming from the building, however, I could use them as cover as we all escape.
“You need to get your people out of here now!” I shout at this manager, desk-jockey, whatever.
The man looks up slowly, not the least bit startled. He very calmly pulls a gun from a desk drawer and points it at me as he picks up the phone.
“Crap,” I say to no one, raising my hands in surrender. “Hey,” I offer, “if you are calling the police, it won’t help. The people I’m with own the police.”
At that, the man hangs up. Keeping the gun trained on me, he says in perfect English with an American accent, “Why do I need to get out of here? Who are you? What is this all about?”
“I’ve been asking that question myself, actually,” I say, speaking rapidly, nervously. “I can tell you one thing: The people making me do this are not anyone you want to mess with.”
“I am not anyone you want to mess with!” the man shouts back. “There is nothing to stop me from shooting you … dead … right now. You are trespassing on private property and interrupting factory production. These are both very serious crimes here. It is completely within my rights to shoot you.”
“At least get your people out,” I say, now bargaining, “to be safe. You can stay here, with your little gun, acting all tough. Call the police. Get blown to bits. I don’t care. At least your people will be safe. Sound good?”
“Blown to bits?” the man asks. “You’ve planted a bomb?”
“Oh, yeah, did I not mention that?”
“No, you had not,” he says, stalling as he figures out what sort of situation he is in. “Alternatively,” he finally offers, “I shoot you, find and defuse your bomb on my own, and leave my happy little workers dry and undisturbed. How does that sound?”
“Sure, if you can find the bomb,” I say. “Shoot me, and you will never find it. Even if you did, you’d still need to know how to disarm it. You any good at stuff like that?”
“I am good at stuff like that. I graduated from UCLA with a degree in electrical engineering.”
“You did not,” I cannot believe it. He points to the degree hanging on his wall.
“Sonofabitch,” I say. “UCLA, huh? I drive by there all the time! Small world! But, anyway, even if you are an engineering genius, you won’t necessarily know how to disable this bomb. This isn’t like television, where they show a computer programmer like me hacking into anything computer-related, all within seconds. I’m good, but I can’t do that. Neither can you. That’s just not reality.”
“You are a computer programmer?” he seems genuinely interested.
“Maybe you can help me automate sending my payroll to corporate in Belgium?”
I laugh in surprise. “Am I being Punk’d?”
Confused, the man says, “I don’t know what this ‘punk’d’ means.”
“You’re part of some multi-national corporation,” I ask, “but you don’t already have your payroll setup?”
“It’s a TV show,” I try to explain what “Punk’d” means. “It’s where they play a trick on you, put it on television for the world to see, laughing at you the whole time. The people being ‘punk’d’ pretend not to be pissed off.”
“Then, no,” he is quite serious. “I do not think you are being ‘punk’d.’ I do not watch shows like that. As to the payroll, yes, we are now part of a multinational corporation but have not yet been incorporated into the new payroll system. Frankly, I doubt our little plant’s workers being paid is a primary concern for our new bosses.”
Extending his hand, he adds, “I’ve said too much. I get angry when I think about how we are treated here. Please, I am Merican.”
“I’m an American, too!” I say with a sudden flush of pride. I am not usually one of those “proud to be an American” types. Funny how being scared shitless in a foreign country affects one’s national pride.
Laughing, the man explains, “No, my name is Merican. Without the leading “A.”
“Oh. OK. My name’s Al … um … Axel McClean. Nice to meet you.”
“And you, Alumaxel,” he says, now very friendly.
“Axel, for short,” I correct him. Changing the subject, I ask, “So, what do you make here?”
“Hard drives,” he says. “For computers.”
“I took a few programming courses,” he continues, “but I am an electrical engineer, not a programmer. An electrical engineer,” he laughs, “doing this.” He gestures around his office space. “But, if you could figure out my payroll problem I will evacuate my people. You will need to tell me where the bomb is, too, of course.”
I say, “No. The bomb has to go off. Sorry. If I don’t blow this place up, they’ll send me to prison … where, I’m told, I will become someone’s bitch.”
Very matter of fact, Merican says, “Yes, that is what often happens. But if I let you blow up the factory, there is no longer a need to send my payroll to corporate, is there?”
“Good point,” I admit. Merican shrugs. “There must be some sort of middle ground,” I say, having no idea what that middle ground might be.