The Last Listener
by Eric Cline
The other five Listeners were dead. We had one still alive and working for us: Frank Innes. None of us liked him.
At a Perkins restaurant one day, Hawkins and I ate with him. Two other agents waited outside in cars. Innes, chewing with his mouth full, got bored and tried to make trouble.
“Captain Calabrese,” he said. Mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak rotated in his open maw. “Captain Calabrese, sir! That ain't nice to think that old Hawkins looks like the Tidy Bowl man.” He smirked.
Hawkins was a civilian security specialist under my supervision. His head was a smooth brown oval, thanks to a barber (I'd known him before he shaved it smooth); he had a single, discrete gold hoop through his left earlobe. Yeah, I'd thought of the Tidy Bowl man.
Frank Innes. Former vagrant. Petty criminal. Rude prick and proud of it. Listener. Indispensable, invaluable Listener.
Hawkins smiled. “Yeah, I'll take that. I was going for that look.” He had class.
“You're not supposed to Listen in on your friends now, Frankie,” I said. I kept my manner calm, but I made sure to think a few choice, sulfurous insults.
His attempt at...humor, I suppose...falling flat, he disregarded us and went back to poking at his dinner. He looked almost mentally handicapped in the way he presented to the world.
He wasn't. He could think and reason just fine. His IQ was average. He could put the shaped wooden blocks into the proper holes.
The other few precious Listeners who had worked for us in the past had all been better, kinder people: all. I interned with most of them when I was training for the program, or I handled them after I became a supervisor. Three women and two men.
All dead now. And not a single new one to freshen up the program.
We should have been getting better at finding them, not worse. I didn't know what the problems were in the recruitment division; there were whispers about better nutrition and more folic acid in American diets, and so fewer birth defects--assuming the theory that Listening was a birth defect was true.
But if it was a defect, it didn't have to mean a personality defect.
He had been recruited in 1996, when he'd been arrested for a ham-handed blackmail scheme in his native Wisconsin. He was a welfare recipient who was trying to shake down a bank president. The blackmail tidbit, though embarrassing, wasn't a crime; the banker told the cops that no one on Earth could know what Frank knew. The case had raised a flag in some basement in Washington D.C., and boom, Frank Innes was on the government payroll and living large in Fairfax, Virginia, where we could keep an eye on him.
Good thing he could Listen to the interesting thoughts of others, because he had none of his own.
When we took him out to eat, he always felt he had to tell us what he planned to do in the bathroom:
“Gotta pinch off a loaf.”
“Gonna lay a log.”
“Laying a loaf.”
“Pinching off a log.”
He invaded our minds to find out if we'd lied about something trivial, or if we were thinking something critical of a colleague, or to get personal dirt.
“Hawkins, I hear you got your ashes hauled last weekend. Congrats!”
“Hey Daniels, how come you smoked that joint with your ole fraternity brother at the reunion, but didn't bring nothing back for me?” We had to investigate, and Daniels lost his job.
“Calabrese, you think the Director is a dyke? Were you just ragging on your old boss-lady, or do you really think she's a carpet cruncher?”
We'd been trained on how to keep our minds as blank as possible, by concentrating on the here-and-now and the immediate future. Listeners can't pull out anything and everything in your brain, like it's a hard drive; you have to be consciously thinking of something. It was stressful to always be on our guard (against the guy we were guarding!), but it mostly worked.
We even figured out a way to tweak him: if we thought about things he couldn't comprehend, he got angry and defensive. Heh, heh.
One week, I decided to listen to an iPod download of Moby Dick, which I think I'd been the only kid in Hickman Mills High Honors English to finish for real. I enjoyed it even more as a mature adult. The narrator had a delightful baritone. When I finished my drive and got to the handlers' station (in the house next door to Frank's) each day, I had pleasant memories of those portions of the book I'd just heard.
When old Frank peeked into my head and heard about the “long lay” and the “cassock” and all of the other subtle goodies Melville had dished up, he frowned. He even looked . . . afraid. Like I'd done something sinful, something forbidden.
“Why're you wanting to listen to that artsy-fartsy shit when you're driving to work, Captain?” he said. He couldn't understand it, couldn't know it, and so, like all fools, he mistook its very existence for an insult.
I just grinned.
Once, I saw him looking at Hawkins with that same fearful frown. The first moment we were alone, I asked Hawkins what he had been thinking about that morning. “Coltrane riffs,” he said with a dreamy smile.
He was near 50, but looked 60, with a graying mullet and (unless we forced him to dress better for a mission) faded jeans. Who said the 80s were over?
We made him shave his scraggly goatee during missions--it made me conscious of that root word goat--but he just went all to hell again during downtime, which could be several months.
Five other Listeners had been in our program at one time. Five. Each one of them a better asset, and a better human being, than he was.
Floyd Cornelius. The first Listener. The courtly, mild-mannered Korean war veteran whose own abilities had spooked him so much that he had led a life of rural seclusion, growing his own food and mending his own ragged clothing, until we showed up in the late 70s to recruit him. (I say “we,” but I would have been in diapers at the time.) Although he only had a seventh grade education, he'd learned Russian for us. When Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik, he was one room away, passed off as a Secret Service agent. He told them Gorbachev's main worry was that the Soviet Union could not afford the arms race with the U.S.
Perceptive of Floyd...and of Gorbachev.
After 9/11, Floyd had worked doggedly to learn Arabic and Pashtun. He loved all of the people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was also heartsick about all of the mistakes, all of the deaths. He should have taken it easier. He died of a heart attack in 2005.
Mary Baumer. I was in my mid-20s when I joined her team of handlers as a trainee. She was, I think, 50 then. When I was introduced as “Lieutenant David Calabrese,” she trilled out a sweet little laugh and said, “Oh, they've sent a handsome Latin lover to guard me.” I reddened. All of the other men (yes, it was all men, now that I think about it) fell over themselves laughing. I'm blonde and part Italian (a great-grandfather from Calabria). I hardly looked like an Italian gigolo--
“Oh, I didn't mean it, sweetheart! I was just joking. Please don't be angry. I wasn't making fun of your Italian heritage or calling you a gigolo!”
Silence reigned in the safe house. She'd plucked the thought right out of my head, just like they'd told me in training (over and over!); but I didn't believe it, not really, until then.
“Ma'am,” I said. My face felt like a hot plate.
“Oh, it was bad of me to Listen to you like that! I'm addicted to men, but since you look like a sweet young boy who could be my son, I'll forswear my addiction and go on the wagon.” As she reached the end of her sentence, her voice got higher until she sounded like a Julia Child impersonator. Everyone laughed. Including me.
Mary Baumer hugged me, and I hugged her back. I was on her detail for three years, and if someone had shot at her, I swear I would have caught the bullet in my teeth to protect her.
When I heard about her suicide in a phone call from my supervisor, I punched a hole in the drywall of my apartment. She had been sad over several failed relationships. She could never tell any man she dated that she was a Listener, of course. The note she left on the bed, next to where she had put a plastic bag over her head, spoke of “seeing too much. I can't help it. I always want to know what does he really think. And I Listen, and I always regret it.”
Stephen Sasaki. I didn't know him that well. In his life before he was recruited, he was the most successful of the Listeners. He'd become fairly wealthy in Hawaiian real estate. He knew what his counter-parties were thinking, so he was playing poker with people who didn't realize they held transparent cards. That was what put our people onto him, I suspect. He negotiated a larger salary than the other Listeners put together, plus a bit of help with the I.R.S.
He was a cold fish, in my experience, but at least he worked hard. He learned Mandarin Chinese at a good clip and helped us figure out what China's aim really was in being North Korea's patron.
He was actually quite a hound. He seduced women by feeding their own fears back to them in the form of compliments. He bragged about it to us. We should have been more strict with him. He was beaten to death by a jealous husband in 2006; he'd been asleep in bed with the wife, so he wasn't Listening as the husband swung the baseball bat down on his head. The agency stayed completely away from the case.
Loretta Ketchum. Dana Furlong. We lost them both in 2008, to each other.
I think, looking back, that their deaths came from a lack of respect. Not that you can put that on a certificate as cause of death.
Loretta had been a teenage runaway and a prostitute.
Dana had been a drifter who picked up waitressing and clerking jobs from town to town, and was, at 46, a virgin, according to her medical exam.
Both had spent their lives, before the government found them, running away from other people's thoughts.
The day they died, we were all at headquarters in D.C. for a general briefing. I was there. The room was huge, and the conference table was circular (well, several tables were formed into a circle). Except for very good recess lighting, the room might have come from Dr. Strangelove.
All of us on the main handling team had registered objections to the two of them being there together. Listeners never liked meeting their own kind. They didn't like having thoughts pulled out of their heads any more than we normals did, but there was more to it than that: the Listener Loop.
Here was an assembly of intelligence chiefs, generals, high-ranking congressmen (no women), and the then-vice president. Each of the women had been told to sit next to an important man and support his arguments as needed. The meeting had been called because of disagreements about future Listening targets. There was an argument that quickly became very bitter between the vice president and a congressmen (who was in the other party) about who had the right to choose targets. Uh-oh.
In my years of working in the government, I've never seen a turf argument get solved, only postponed until the next round; so it went with this one.
But while all of these important men were talking, they were ignoring the two women who had never finished high school and who were wary of other people. I saw them glance at each other in shared misery.
I was a bit of a peon in that crowd myself; I think I'd been invited in case anyone needed to have their briefcase held while they took a piss. As I watched, their frowns became deeper. They were falling into what one of our psychiatrists had dubbed the Listener Loop. It meant that the two of them traded a thought back and forth, magnifying it and obsessing on it. If Dana merely thought, “The General's mustache isn't well-trimmed,” then Loretta could hear the thought, think to herself, “General's mustache, looks bad,” and then Dana would read her own thought interpreted by Loretta, and have a new thought due to the observance, such as “mustache looks bad very bad,” and then Dana would magnify it further, and then Loretta, and on and on until nothing but “mustache MUSTACHE” was echoing through their minds.
I don't know what the actual thought was that echoed through their heads, whether it was about mustaches or bottled water or recess lighting. The Listener Loop had been discovered when Floyd Cornelius and Stephen Sasaki had an unpleasant but non-fatal encounter with each other; they'd been physically separated, hustled out of opposite ends of a building and the handlers, quick thinkers all, had slapped and shouted at them to focus on something else.
This time, it was different. A gaggle of soccer moms was having an argument over the smell of the coleslaw at the school picnic, and the kiddies were drowning in the pond.
“The legislative branch of government has the right to hold the executive branch accountable--” a congressman said, and the vice president interrupted with: “Who's the legislative branch? You? You're one goddamn guy. You aren't all of Congress--”
The women stared at each other from opposite sides of the room. I wasn't near either of them. General Taliaferro had me next to him to consult.
Frank Innes was not there; Loretta Ketchum, former truck stop hooker, had enough grace and composure to be presentable to the most powerful men in America, but Frank Innes was too much of an embarrassment.
“This administration speaks with one voice,” the vice president said. “We are one entity. But Congress doesn't have one voice at the top. So when you say, 'This is Congress's list of Listening targets' I say...bullshit! Who in Congress?”
Dana started blinking rapidly. Then Loretta. The FBI assistant director, whom Dana sat next to, glared at her, perhaps thinking she was just weirding out on him. Then she began to shake, and slipped to the floor. The assistant director sprang up--away from her, not towards her to help.
I stood up and ran towards Loretta, who was closest to me, skirting around the backs of men in chairs. Her body slid down to the floor, jerking as it went. Clamor arose in the huge conference room as almost everyone realized something was very, very wrong.
The vice president, thinking the noise meant disagreement with his position, shouted, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” at the top of his lungs. I glanced up from trying to help Loretta, who had already stopped breathing. Then he saw the men congregating around the two women on the floor on opposite ends of the room. He pointed at the congressmen he'd been arguing with and yelled, “What the fuck did you do?”
I'd liked both of those sad women. Dana, the drifter, who just wanted to stay out of everybody's way. Loretta, the street whore who had never dropped her defenses around me or any man, even after working with us for years. They'd both been knocked around hard by life, and I was glad for them that they'd made some good money and had a softer deal for the last few years of their lives.
And then there was just one left.
“I haven't been promoted in four years,” Colleton told me one morning. We were having breakfast in the house that four of us shared.
“More than that for me,” I said. It was on all of our minds.
“Of course, you and I have different ideas of a promotion,” I said. “I'm supervising you and yet you're making more money than me.”
“Yeah, but you can retire when you're 40,” he said.
“Not quite,” I said. “I'm not leaving as any damn captain.”
“While I work till I keel over.”
“I've got me eye on full colonel, maybe even higher.”
The Listener teams had an unusual structure. An active duty military man (myself) commanded it, but most of the people on it were civilians, formerly civil servants, these days mostly private contractors with security clearances. So they did technically earn more than me, but my benefits, including earlier retirement, were supposed to compensate for it.
“So when are they promoting you to major?” Colleton said, which struck me as pushing it.
“Should be soon,” I said. “I've been a captain for eight years now. I hope it's soon. I thought Listener duty was a fast track. And I did get promoted to captain. But I don't know...” I looked down at my coffee cup.
“That's what I been thinking,” Colleton said. He was a blonde guy who had a full mustache straight from the 70s. He was older than me. I knew he'd been with the Federal government for about 20 years, then was forced to become a contractor when the administration outsourced the job.
He looked at me slyly. “I've heard things,” he said.
“What've you heard?”
“The Listener program has lost its head winds, now that it's down to that creepy uncle in the next shack over.” He nodded towards Innes's residence. “You?”
The information was out of nowhere for me. The Listeners read minds. They gave us any number of strategic advantages. Surely the fact that it was down to one person made Frank Innes more valuable, not less.
But then, how much did I value Frank Innes?
“I haven't heard anything,” I said, and spoke God's honest truth. “Ever since Dana and Loretta died, there have been fewer briefings. Fewer reports. I guess I’ve been relieved about it, actually. But it does seem, now that you mention it, that we're not really on anybody's minds anymore.” I realized that I had started stroking my chin.
“Fewer missions,” Colleton said. He turned a piece of buttered toast over in his hand, as if deciding whether it was worth eating. “More downtime. A lot more escorting Frankie to the mall or to Shoney's.”
“Shoney's,” I said. “Shoney's, geez. You know, I've been thinking about that a lot. I'm eating too much restaurant food. Gained seven pounds since the start of summer.”
“Old Frank likes to live good on the government tit,” Colleton said. “Crap good, too. Pinch a loaf.”
“Nip a log!” We laughed.
Resuming his serious expression, Colleton said, “We're feeding a monkey in the zoo. We're babysitting this boring, seedy guy, and the cost is just one more item on the agency's ledger. We've been forgotten, Captain.”
“But this is mind reading,” I said.
“We're learning just how worthless mind reading is,” Colleton said. “Hacking into hard drives is where it is, man. Intercepting cell phones. Grabbing emails off the net in transit. People just vomit up everything they're thinking and doing and gonna do. It's the Facebook generation. All the resources are going into that. The authorities get the information without the Ocean of Angst.”
I smiled. Ocean of Angst was a term coined by Stephen Sasaki. He'd used it (in an interview with a psychologist which became mandatory reading among our set) to describe the terrible phenomenon that all the Listeners had to put up with.
SASAKI: You tell yourself you're going to fail. Everyone does. You look at the neighbor's new car and think to yourself, 'I don't and won't have the money for that. I'm not as successful.' Everyone thinks like this. Even if you do get the promotion or win the sack race. You always think, at least in passing, 'I can't.'
Listeners hear it from you, and him, and her, everyone on the street if we can't fuzz our minds up enough to blot it out. Imagine a life spent walking down streets filled with stereo speakers poking out of every window, every bush, every sewer grate, every back pack, all muttering FAIL, AFRAID, CAN'T. That's what a Listener walks through every day.
One of your directors asked me once why we didn't set ourselves up as dictators of the world, since we seemed to have God-like powers. Well, let me tell you buddy, if God really exists and He really can hear everyone's prayers like they say, then He sure as hell ain't running the world. He's curled up into a little ball on some cloud, shutting His eyes tight and keeping His hands over His years, trying desperately to keep out that endless Ocean of Angst that must be the sum of everyone's prayers.
DR. WEINSTEIN: Why were you able to be a success in real estate when every other Listener has suffered from severe inability to function in social settings?
SASAKI: Because I'm an asshole. I don't care what other people think. I know what I am. I'm not psychotic. I'd yell out a warning to someone on the street if a car was about to run them over. But I wouldn't dash out and save them. I wouldn't risk my own ass.
DR. WEINSTEIN: Are you proud of that?
SASAKI: No. It's just the way I am. Oh, and I couldn't tell what my parents were thinking when I was growing up.
DR. WEINSTEIN: You couldn't? You couldn't get a Drift off of them?
SASAKI: No, that's not what I mean. I could hear their Drift just fine. I just couldn't understand it. My father was a native Japanese speaker. My mother spoke Tagalog.
DR. WEINSTEIN: (Hesitantly) Tag, ALL, log?
SASAKI: (Laughs.) That's the Philippine language. My old man, especially, would never speak Japanese in public, not after World War II. But they each thought about things in their native languages. They weren't close to each other, or me. Maybe that was their way of mentally withdrawing themselves. They didn't know about my, talent, curse, whatever. They spoke only accented English to me. It's my understanding that a lot of the Listeners were really screwed up by knowing the difference between what their parents were saying and what they were thinking.
I had come to the conclusion that simple lack of sensitivity explained Frank Innes. This was a guy who wasn't hurt by someone else feeling sad. Being a sheer, brute force, triple-action, extra-strength, extended-release asshole gave him a life preserver in the Ocean of Angst. Had he been calloused from listening to his parents feud as they drifted from apartment to apartment just ahead of the bill collectors? Or was he born like that?
Anyway, I think one thing is clear; old Frank would not bother to yell if he saw someone about to be hit by a car.
The Chinese scientist got my blood running again. I left my crew with Frank and went to DC alone to get briefed.
“Bao Wu, Ph.D., is an English-speaking physicist. MIT graduate, actually. He will be attending the International Physics Convention in Baltimore next month.”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” I said. The briefing guy didn't look happy about my interruption. Seven scowling men and women focused their grimness on me. But I had to interrupt.
“Physicist? Are these scientific secrets we're supposed to take?”
“Yes!” the briefing guy said. “You cut me off.”
“This is Frank fucking Innes!” I said. “He knows nothing. He's strictly for getting yes/no answers out of couriers and henchmen. He can't pull complex factual data out of someone's head. He couldn't understand it or remember it.”
“He'll be briefed.”
“He's too lazy to be briefed. When we don't have him out in the field, he drinks beer, watches porn and sports, and that's it.”
“Your job is to make him learn, Captain. This is an important target. We have to know what their advances are in miniaturization of warheads.”
“Aww!” I felt almost physical pain at the idea of trying to get Frank Innes to somehow successfully do this.
“And there could be a promotion in it for you...Captain.”
I froze. I did not want my eagerness to betray me.
“And tell your men there could be at least a step increase for them, plus a performance bonus.”
I just nodded. “That would be nice. Speaking frankly, it's long overdue.”
“Oh, it ain't overdue,” he said. “It's just been held back. You've been held back, Captain Calabrese. You're not producing for us. You produce, you become a Major. Don't produce, and you'll be the oldest Captain in the army on active duty.”
I took the briefing materials back to the safe house in Virginia and had a long talk with my crew: Hawkins, Colleton, and Merck. We were all agreed. Our careers were screwed, stewed, and tattooed if we didn't get Frank Innes to produce.
We barged in without knocking and found him lying on the sofa watching porn. He wasn't even choking his chicken. He sat there with a beer in hand. It was as if the porn was his baseline mode of existence; he had to watch just to be alive. This particular video was nasty stuff: three naked, elderly women doing things to each other with broom handles.
With the other three guys flanking him, I walked in front of the TV.
“Got a mission for you, Frank.”
He didn't sit up. But he moved his head around, getting a quick Drift on us all. I felt him pass through my cranium, just for a moment.
Most people who are Listened to don't notice it. But if you've been around Listeners long enough, like I have, you know when it's happening. There's a slight decrease in the, oh, call it volume of your own thoughts. It's like someone is tapping your power supply, and you see your own lights dim slightly. Very slightly.
“China? Physics? What the fuck?” he said.
I slapped the off button on the 64-inch HDTV the taxpayers had bought him. The broomstick grannies disappeared from view.
“China,” I said. “Physics. And you better not fuck this one up.”
He pulled the remote control out from between his legs and turned the TV back on.
Hawkins grabbed the remote from his left hand and turned off the TV again. Colleton grabbed the beer from his right hand.
“Let me put that away for you,” Colleton said as he threw it against the far wall. The can compacted a bit and spewed beer.
Frank sputtered and cursed, but didn't stand up. His eyes showed his fear; you didn't have to be able to Listen to know it.
“You Listening to us, Frank?” I said.
“Yeah!” It was a pathetic sob.
“You're gonna buckle down and learn a few basics of high school physics. You're gonna learn a few terms just so you can recognize them in some guy's head. Just so we can answer some yes and no questions. Miniaturization of components for use in Chinese short range ballistic missiles. That's all. The actual operation will only take one evening. But you're really gonna have to do some work to get to that evening. Understand?”
The fact that he Listened to us worked in our favor. He knew we would lay fists and feet on him if he provoked us. He could get a Drift on our anger at being stuck with him, our sheer rage at having our careers stalled out to take care of this shoddy remnant of the once-golden Listeners program.
Training went as smoothly as you'd expect with a barely-literate drifter who had never read anything harder than the instructions on a vending machine. We did word repetitions. We had contractors come in to teach him things; one of them made a little progress by recasting the Beatles' “Yellow Submarine” with lyrics about sea-to-land missile components. We gave him computer programs designed to teach physics to fifth graders who spoke English as a second language.
It didn't come to nothing. But it was definitely nothing's second cousin.
The Baltimore Convention Center is not so much a building as it is an assault on the notion of community.
Let others bewail the alienation of modern life. The Baltimore Convention Center revels in it. Its huge sloped sides of unpainted concrete make big box retail buildings look like ornate cottages by comparison. Conventioneers can take a train directly from the BWI airport right to a side entrance. Most hotels that service the BCC (which has no sleeping quarters of its own) are on a narrow corridor facing away from the Baltimore harbor. Conventioneers go back and forth between business and bed in unstoppable armies.
A few blocks and several very busy roads separate the BCC from the Inner Harbor restaurants. But that little inconvenience is remedied by an audacious bit of elitism that Marie Antoinette would have envied: the skywalk.
Jutting out of the back of the Convention Center, two stories up, the skywalk look like an elevated freeway. Wide enough for two lanes of traffic, its sole purpose is to allow conventioneers to walk to the Inner Harbor restaurants, crossing above high speed roads, without having to set foot in the real Baltimore.
The Baltimore harbor shipyards died slowly in the decades after World War II. Whatever was left was razed to build the tinfoil-and-sawdust knockoff of Disneyland that the Inner Harbor has been turned into. Restaurants, gift shops, ferry boat tours. Neither the city government nor the Federal government will ever be forced, on pain of losing tourism dollars, to clean up the city for the people who live there 52 weeks a year. Murder, drug abuse, STDs, and any other alarming indicator are sky high in Baltimore--but not as high as the skywalk.
The skywalk ends in elevators and stairs to get down to the ground. It's a place anyone can access, in other words. That's not usually a danger, because there are tons of tourists and cops walking back and forth during convention weekends. But those don't keep you safe from being surveilled by a Listener.
Dr. Bao Wu sat down for dinner at Phillips Seafood Restaurant at 7 pm in the company of American, British, and French colleagues. Two Chinese “energy executives,” obviously bodyguards, were with him. In this day and age, were they afraid he would defect?
The American had contract work with the Pentagon, and he had been tasked with discussing physics, in English, with Wu. He wore a wire. The American knew nothing of Listeners or of our presence. He thought he was somehow supposed to tease it out of Wu. No. He was supposed to get Wu thinking about the Chinese weapons program, in English, and Frank was then supposed to get a Drift on it.
It would have been impossible to arrange a close enough table, for certain, at the restaurant, nor did we want to be seen leaving at the same time. But when they left, we could be walking back those few blocks, on that wonderful skywalk, on that crowded Saturday evening.
Bao Wu had had two glasses of wine--which was good. A separate team had watched him pour that into himself from afar at Phillips. The four of us in the handling team had an elaborate script involving sports and office politics talk (we all worked in the same insurance office, by the scenario). Frank was supposed to blend in as that “wallflower friend” who moves quietly within a group. That way he could concentrate on Listening. He was supposed to laugh when he heard the rest of us laugh at one of our rehearsed remarks and not have to think about it otherwise, just walk along the skywalk and Listen.
We walked along the two-story-high concrete road, keeping the Bao Wu party in sight. Other people streamed along with us as well as in the opposite direction; we didn't get made by the Chinese “executives.”
“That new temp in actuarials is hot, bro,” I said.
“Yellow submarine,” Frank said. The four of us looked at him. He wasn't supposed to say anything.
“Man, I could tap some of that,” Colleton said.
“Submarine,” Frank said. He strolled on, not really looking at us.
“Hands off, she's mine,” Hawkins said. He delivered his lines less than convincingly because he was distracted now by Frank.
“Submarine, submarine,” Frank said in a singsong voice. “Yellow submarine.”
Merck missed his cue to say something. He frowned at Frank. I quietly jabbed his side.
“You'd have a heart attack, bro,” Merck said. His voice was absent from his voice, and I jabbed him harder.
Then I dealt with Frank Innes, in an urgent whisper:
“Frankie, you need to pipe down--”
It wasn't Frank.
It was Bao Wu, up ahead of us. He'd stopped walking. He was turning around. And around.
“Submarine! Yellow submarine!” The other convention scientists looked alarmed. The two goons who shadowed him looked around with tight expressions. I think they realized at the same time I did--
“Listener Loop!” I yelled. Fuck undercover.
“Yellow submarine, submarine,” Frank chanted. “Yellow submarine, submarine.”
“Yellow submarine!” Bao Wu yelled. The two looked at each other.
Bao Wu was a Listener. Had the Chinese put a Listener through MIT, or had he gone himself and then revealed himself as a Listener to his country's authorities? Either way, it was a horrifying prospect. How many secrets, from how many nations, had he planned to scoop up at this convention alone? Just think what intelligence damage a Listener with a trained brain could do.
But Bao Wu wasn't doing much right now except trembling violently and yelling, “Submarine! Submarine! Submarine! Yellow submarine!”
Yellow submarine had surely come from Frank's mind. The phrase, each bit of it, was getting louder and louder in their brains with each repetition. Frank was repeating it all too, but he didn't seem to be in the same hysterics. He just looked...distant.
The two Beijing bodyguards left Dr. Wu to the care of his fellow scientists, who all thought he was having some kind of conventional seizure. As a group, they caught him just before he collapsed. “Sub-sub-sub-sub-sub--” the young scientist babbled. The bodyguards' presence was no longer any mystery; they were there for the same reason guards stood in front of the Mona Lisa: to protect a rare treasure. They looked at us from 10 feet away. Then they came toward us.
“Protect Frank,” I said. God bless international air travel; these guys probably could kill with their pinky fingers, but they couldn't pack heat. The four of us formed a phalanx in front of Frank, who was listless, but not trembling.
Colleton flipped open his coat, quickly flashing his gun without alarming the tourists. Hawkins gestured meaningfully with his hand in his coat pocket.
“Tourists get killed by muggers all the time in this shitty excuse for a city,” I said. “You don't want to become a statistic.” Even as I maintained a tough guy pose, I was desperate to get Frank out of there so we could physically break the Listener Loop.
“Sub-sub-sub-sub-sub . . .” Bao Wu's cries were getting fainter. A crowd of strangers was accumulating. I glanced back at Frank, standing behind us. He actually was getting better. One second he seemed lost in the space between his ears, the next second, after a startled shake of his head, he looked around at us.
And he wasn't saying anything.
The pair of Chinese agents quit trying to get past us to Frank. They went back to their golden boy.
Someone kneeing over Wu on the ground yelled, “He's not breathing! Anyone know CPR?”
“We couldn't tell you, of course,” the Director said. Her eyes dared me to make something of it. “He would have plucked it right out of your head.”
Since she was right, and since she was my supervisor's supervisor, I did not argue. It's the chain of command: they're in command and I'm in chains.
In lieu of sputtering indignantly, I said, “How did you tumble to the late Dr. Wu's secret?”
“Someone who worked with Listeners a long time ago felt his thoughts go dim for an instant, when he was stationed in another country. That's all I can tell you.
“That Listener, with his understanding of science, could have made the whole world a fishbowl. Even if we had still had one of the more valuable Listeners, instead of Frank Innes, we would have sacrificed that person for the assassination. Trading a pawn for a pawn.”
I sighed. “A deliberately arranged Listener Loop.” The very notion made me very, very tired of working for the government.
“We had no hesitation, Captain,” she said. “In fact, our only real worry was what would happen if we detected another Listener in foreign hands after that. How would we arrange the killing so efficiently with none left of our own? Fortunately...” She let the sentence trail off.
“Yes, fortunately,” I said. I sighed again.
After the debriefing, I went back to the houses in Virginia. Things have changed. They've got 26 full-time guys on each shift, not four like before. They also bought a lot of surrounding properties and increased the buffer zone for Frank. I reported to my new supervisor, Colonel Fenger.
Hawkins had already found a new job with the NIH in Rockville, Maryland. God bless him. We all told him, only half-jokingly, “take me with you.” His career is back on track. Colleton and Merck, my other old friends, were let go. Uncle Sam had decided private contractors were no longer the way to take care of a valuable asset.
I thought being a caretaker of a dying program was bad. I'd never thought about being in a program so important that they gave it to some favored insider to lead. Colonel Fenger was wired in tight with a lot of power players. He's really taking good care of his career with this assignment; Frank Innes is a Listener killer. Next time we detect one of them working for a foreign government, they die.
There are a ton of things we don't know. How did Dr. Bao Wu become so intellectually accomplished? We don't know much about his early life. There are ethnic minorities in China who speak languages other than Mandarin Chinese. Did he, like Stephen Sasaki, grow up in a home where he couldn't Drift his parents' thoughts, and therefore be driven to depression? All we know is, his temperament was 180 degrees from that of Frank Innes.
But Wu is dead, and Frank is alive. You see, Frank has that one quality that makes him immune to a Listener Loop: he doesn't give a crap about what anyone else thinks. He is utterly uninterested in the thoughts, opinions, and emotional states of his fellow human beings. He can Listen, but he's bored by it, unless it's about sex or something filthy and embarrassing. Bao Wu had Drifted “Yellow Submarine” from him. But Frank, each time he drifted the words he'd planted in Wu's skull, didn't pay enough attention to it to amplify the words in his own dullard's brain.
Stephen Sasaki had said that God, if He existed, was shivering up in heaven, crushed by the sorrows of billions of prayers. But what if the being with the God-like power was so low, so ignorant, so slothful that he just didn't care? Problem solved.
Today I brought a case of beer to restock the fridge in Frank's house, which should have been done by one of the newly-hired gofers with security clearances. Colonel Fenger told me to do it; I wondered if he was showing the only other active duty military man his brass balls. I did as I was ordered.
Frank was on the couch, watching TV. He smirked as I came in.
“My tribute!” he yelled. “Put 'er in the fridge, Cap'n, and bring me a cold one.” He clapped his hands twice, like he'd seen kings do in movies.
He'd already made an official complaint about my previous rough treatment of him, and a reprimand was in my file. I avoided trouble by getting him the beer.
He took the can from my hand and said, “Bet you ain't gonna try to throw this against the wall now, are you?”
“How 'bout the remote control? You gonna take that outta my hand?” He stabbed a button with his thumb to turn up the volume. Two sports announcers' blather became painfully loud.
“That was Hawkins that did that, Frank. And Colleton did the beer.”
“They followed your lead, though, didn't they?”
“They did their jobs,” I said. To my surprise, he caught that inflection.
“I didn't do mine? Motherfucker, I'm the baddest-ass hitman in the world. I fucking well did my fucking job!”
“On a Listener,” I said. I tried to gain control of my temper. The TV was screaming. He was just sitting there, rocking back and forth on his fat ass, yelling at me. And I was supposed to just stand there and take it? “When no other Listeners show up on their radar for a few years, just watch, Frank. They'll get tired of paying for your porn and your pizza.”
“Oh, I think I gots me more talent than that!” he said. He threw the beer towards the far wall this time. I flinched, and hated myself for it. “Ever since that goatfuck in Baltimore, I've really been feeling my oats. I begun to see I got a lot more talent than just against Listeners.”
“You're deluded, Frank,” I said. “You're a mess.”
He just looked up at me. I put my hands on my hips and glared back at him.
Godlike powers, my ass!
Here was The Great God Frank Innes. The Great God of boring drunkenness. The Great God of freak porn and junk food. The God of brainless bullshit. The Great American Couch Potato God.
God, god, god...