The team rents a tiny third-story office suite that contains very little of note: A desk and door, a grimy unopenable window, a computer and assorted peripherals. Some scattered cobwebs. A row of filing cabinets, dusty and rusty and gray, matching gray walls, gray speckled carpet, a sea of gray ceiling dotted by brown water stains like ellipses. A jagged crack zigzags across the drywall.
Across the street, though, that’s where the comparatively interesting stuff is. Trees, for example, black walnuts, planted by the town’s Shade Tree Commission five or six years ago. Like a little wooden Stonehenge, they encircle a children’s park, complete with swings and slides and teeter-totters and plastic painted smiling bouncy horses and all that jazz. A little fountain in the middle squirts water; little cavorting stone birds are carved into the base. There are three benches positioned around it, green and slatted. Two streetlights, flanking the break in the trees that permits access to the park, guard the whole tableau.
It makes Paul nervous to look at it. The park becomes sinister at night, the swings more menacing, the tree branches more clawlike, the horses more like evil demon horses. Their smiling horsey faces contort into something different, something grimacing and alien, and everything about the scene is twisted and wrong and distorted. Movietheaters, hospitals, restaurants, bars, streets, street corners, alleyways, train stations, convenience stores, and conversations with other people all tend to have the same effect on Paul at night. So he tries to avoid all of those things. When possible.
Every five minutes, though, he forces himself to look out the window at the playground to make sure that Ollie, seated on one of the three benches, is in his line of sight, lest the guy wakes up and pisses his pants or wanders off into the middle of traffic or tries to eat something that he shouldn’t (earlier, he had eaten two ballpoint pens and had been halfway through a third before Paul noticed and banished him from the office). But the big guy’s still asleep, one fist propping his chin up, looking ike a modern-day, living reproduction of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. But with the mind of a six-year-old, Larry Fine hair and an affinity for denim overalls.
To stay busy, Klein has been futzing with paperwork, crunching various numbers that need to be crunched, and performing lots and lots of really important office duties at the frenetic pace of a cashier ringing up groceries on amphetamines. It helps him keep his mind off more critical things, like Ollie’s deteriorating mental condition (it was worsening far more rapidly than his neurologist had predicted) or the team’s similarly deteriorating bank account (the team has broken a personal record at a solid six weeks, with zero work to show for it).
A polite ding! from the computer snaps him out of the zone. The email is from Ian, and it’s short. The main points include:
1. Ian has accepted a 72-hour job from fullmetalbracket.com. At 8:00 PM on a Friday night. (Not that any of the team’s three members had anything planned.)
2. It’s easy, he claims. It’s busting up some walls in an office building. We can have the retard do it. He goes apeshit for that stuff. Paul winces at this. Ian is not a huge proponent of forgiving. Or forgetting.
3. The job also entails some wiring or cabling or whatever that should be super easy for you. Paul rolls his eyes.
4. Ian would like Paul to please bring food, thanks. He does not go into any more detail.
Below all of this is a unique, nine-digit hexadecimal thumbprint (Paul writes it down), part of an algorithm used to decrypt any ancillary files attached to a particular job. Below that is a hyperlink (Paul clicks it) leading to the job page. The web browser hangs, then the entire computer follows suit. Annoyed, Paul glances outside and notices, now alarmed, that Ollie is no longer sitting on the bench.
His stomach drops, then rights itself as Paul sees that it’s okay, Ollie has only switched benches, but now his back is facing toward the office window now and it looks to Paul like he’s still dead asleep, still in the Thinker pose.
Paul is unsettled, and is content to continue being unsettled, but is distracted by the sounds of the office computer resurrecting itself. Its hard drive spins and whirs from beyond the grave and eventually defibrillates itself back to life, and the screen is now displaying a convoluted soup of numbers and letters that makes up the project description for job #16998. Right now, Paul is busy focusing on the word uninterrupted, as in uninterrupted 72-hour job, as in the job that Paul now realizes is impossible to finish with a three-person team because it involves extensive demolition across eight of the building’s ten stories, plus wiring throughout the entire facility, including its basement and sub-basement, and Paul supposes that Ian did not read any of that.
Uninterrupted jobs are reserved for contracting teams that have thirty or forty workers immediately on hand for the job: They have to be completed exactly 72 hours after acceptance of the job. There is no way their three-person team has any chance of completing it. Paul is looking for the job cancel link but can’t find it, even though he’s canceled jobs before and the link is always in the upper-right. It’s just not there.
He grabs the landline, dials FMB’s customer service department to cancel manually. He’s on hold, listening to a muzak version of Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, and clicks the project blueprint link out of professional curiosity. Keys in the decrypt code. Lines, angles, squiggles, squares and rectangles pop up on the screen. Paul studies them.
“The angles are wrong,” he says, aloud. He doesn’t remember saying this later and even if he did, he wouldn’t have known what he meant, wouldn’t have thought it significant.
A car whizzes by outside, its tires kicking up a spray of water. The splash jolts Paul out of his reverie. He’s lost 24 minutes—they’d just vanished, gone into the ether somewhere—and has somehow fallen backward out of his chair. He observes the lightning bolt crack from his current vantage point on the floor. It looks like an EKG readout.
His foot is tangled in phone cord. He extracts his leg, gets up, brushes off his clothes, and sees he has yanked the phone jack completely out of the wall. Out the window, Ollie is now sitting on bench three, same pose. One of the tree branches looks like it’s reaching out to grab him from behind.
Shuddering, Paul turns back to the computer, sees the blueprints are onscreen, averts his eyes and alt-tabs out of the window, though he’s not quite sure why. He uses his smartphone to send Ian an email that is brief and to the point: he has a bad feeling about this job, Ollie is not doing well, and please let him know when he’s gotten this email because his thing is happening again so it’s probably not a good idea for them to do this. He sends it and (accurately) predicts that he will not receive a reply. Paul thinks about sending a follow-up email, one that would remind Ian that his bad feelings were usually accurate, that the last time he’d had one, years ago, an eight-year-old child had died by way of Ollie’s green Buick Regal, which ultimately led to Ollie’s brain damage, Ian’s limp and photosensitivity, the “thing” that keeps happening to Paul.
But he needs to cancel the job before the 15-minute grace period ends. Alt-tabbing back to FMB, Paul sees the job cancellation link is back. His spirits lift; he grins and exhales a puff of air that he didn’t even know he was holding. He starts guiding the cursor toward the link when a chat window appears, the buddy icon an anthropomorphic grinning claw hammer with the word HANDY etched on the handle. Handy, the site’s proprietor, is mysterious almost to the point of self-parody, which is why Paul found it odd that the guy had started chatting him up online a few weeks ago about random topics: roofing materials, Chinese food, cats, the Atari game Pitfall. Paul had gone along with it. Handy scared him. And he knew some interesting trivia about Pitfall.
—Shouldn’t you be on the road by now? Your buddy already left.
—My buddy should have never accepted the job in the first place. There’s no way we can complete this in time. It’s not physically possible.
—That was actually my fault: I miscategorized that job when I added it to the database. Just get as much as you can done in 72 hours: I’ll send a team out to assist. You’ll still get paid.
Paul considers. Glances out at Ollie, who is now laying prone on bench two.
—Okay. I’ll need to contact Ian for directions, and I’ll need access to the wireless network at the job site to access the project schematics. Is that cool?
—I just talked to Ian. He’s there already. He just got through security. But the directions have probably been autodeleted from the phone. I’ll send those, and the network key, to your phone,
—Thanks for doing this, Handy. Ian sound okay?
—He sounded fine.
The chat window winks out of existence. Paul logs out with one hand and yanks the bottom desk drawer open with the other, rustling through it until he uncovers his flashlight, brushed steel and familiar. He hefts it in his hand and immediately feels better, braver, ready for the elevator ride to the ground floor. He also takes extra batteries for the flashlight and four Sominex, to sedate Ollie for the car ride. As he walks out, he doesn’t notice that when he fell out of his chair during his episode, he’d ripped the Ethernet cable out of the back of the computer, too.