The room is dark. The air is thick with a musky scent. The aroma is intoxicating. Not like a fine wine is intoxicating, like chloroform is intoxicating. The fragrance is familiar, but it’s the purest version I’ve ever smelt. It starts sweet, rises to a head, and finishes spicy.
I’d swear I was lying in a fresh meadow, if it wasn’t for the chair rocking beneath me, or the door creaking open on its rusty hinge.
My eyes water through the lids. It’s a struggle to keep them squeezed shut. The odor fills me with each breath. My mind slips. I’m dizzy with pungent petals. The smell clogs my nostrils with sugar, fills my mouth with cinnamon, and pours pepper down my throat.
I’d swear I was buried in a bed of roses, if it wasn’t for the twist ties digging into my wrists, and the footfalls echoing around me.
Once my nose adjusts to the scent, the other senses kick in. There’s something wrapped tight around my neck. It digs into my Adam’s apple. My skin itches like crazy, like I dove face first into a patch of poison ivy. My muscles feel numb. It takes considerable effort to furrow my brow, open my mouth, and make my nose twitch.
The moment I realize there’s a bag over my head, someone takes it off.
My eyes struggle to adjust to the harsh interrogation room lights. My allergies wrap them in rainbow auras.
I can just make out the silhouettes of the two suits on the other side of the table. They look like federal agents. One is lanky. As thin as a mannequin and just as pasty. His jacket hangs off of him. He may very well be two-children stacked up posing as an adult. The other wears a fierce pants suit that’s all shoulder pads and pleats. The click of her heels reverberates throughout the room.
The lanky one tosses the bag on the aluminum table before me.
I say, “Did you put roses in that before you slipped it over my head?” When I clear my throat, a wad of phlegm fills my mouth.
The lanky agent shrugs, “I didn’t feel like making two trips.”
I try to squint the last few tears from my eyes. I say, “You know the florist has bags behind the counter, right?”
The lanky agent tilts his head from side to side. His hands rise and fall like a set of scales. “She mistook it for a canvas bag. I didn’t want to make a scene.”
My squint narrows further still, I say, “You were practicing bagging me while you were in line at the flower shop?”
He nods, “Yes. Yes, I was.”
I turn to the female agent, her features come into focus. Her cleft chin is raised. Her green eyes stay fixed on me. She could give my mother lessons in intimidation.
I say, “And what, you practiced binding my hands while you were waiting in line for stamps?”
She crosses her arms, “Who buys stamps anymore?”
The lanky agent says, “Not this guy.”
He throws a file on the table. An eight by ten glossy spills out. It’s me, looking over my shoulder at the bus stop. A breeze has parted my hair. My scarf blows in the wind. My collar has flipped up to frame my face. It’s a fantastic shot. It would make a fine ‘About the Author’ pic.
The female agent circles around me. “No, his rent is automatically deducted.”
They take turns rattling off my expenses.
“As are his medical bills.”
“As are his student loans.”
“As are his overdraft fees.”
“He’s gone paperless.”
“He’s off the postal grid.”
I look over my shoulder to find the agent in the pants suit with her foot up on the chair. She’s poised to drive a stiletto heel into my back.
I say, “I take it the flowers were for you? What with you two finishing each other’s sentences and all?”
She crosses her arms to reveal red talons where her finger tips ought to be. She says, “I’m not the flowers type.” Then she presses her heel into my back.
The table presses into my gut. I turn to find the lanky agent putting his weight on it. They’re sandwiching me in, crushing me down the middle.
He says, “You didn’t leave a paper trail, but you made your digital footprint with a clown shoe.”
I go blank. I’m in too much pain to follow his metaphor.
The table moves deeper into my gut. The heel pokes into my kidney.
The lanky one says, “Clowns have big feet,” He rolls his eyes, “or big shoes. Either way, you don’t need to call forensics to know they leave a large print.”
The stiletto sends a red hot pain signal to my head. Its about to break the skin.
I say, “So you’re foot fetishists then?” I suck in my gut, hoping to spare my back.
The female agent says, “We’re part of a government agency charged with walking through the dark recesses of the internet.”
She digs her heel ever deeper as she says the word “walking.”
“So you’re foot fetishists?” I repeat myself.
She eases her heel off.
The lanky agent puts more weight on the table. It creaks. A sharp stabbing pain rips through my abdomen, like I’m sawed in half for a magic show.
He says, “We’re agents of PRISM.”
He puts even more weight on the table to emphasize the ‘P’ in “PRISM.” I choke up a wad of phlegm. It leaves a big yellow blot on the aluminum. Disgusted, the son-of-a-bitch finally eases off at the sight of it.
I spit the last of it out for good measure. I say, “PRISM? Please tell me someone was listening to The Dark Side of the Moon when you came up with that one.”
The other agent walks her deadly heels to her partners side of the table. She says, “The attorney general sent a directive to Google, demanding full access to their servers. We sift through their searches in the name of counterterrorism.”
The lanky agent paces around the table, trading spaces with his partner. He settles behind my back. He’s probably not there to massage it.
He says, “We wrote an algorithm to flag any queries that could be linked to terrorist activity. People searching for bomb making supplies. People searching for weapons grade anthrax. People searching for plastic guns to smuggle through metal detectors.”
The agent in the pants suit clicks her talons across the table. She says, “Our job is to suss out the culprits before they can strike.”
The lanky agent leans over my shoulder, and into my comfort bubble. I feel his breath against my ear. I can taste it. It has a tobacco head, a coffee body and whiskey finish. He says, “Guess who’s name came up again and again?”
I turn my head to spare my nose, “I don’t know, but if I had to pick a geometric shape, I’d have gone with a dodecahedron. A lot more acronym real estate there. Prisms just take light and make it fabulous.”
The agent in the pants suit raises her chin to her partner, “Is he high? Can roses get you high?”
The lanky agent rests his chin on my shoulder. Its point tickles my collar bone.
“We’ve been watching you from Friendster to Facebook.” His words reverberate through me. “From Livejournal to WordPress. We’ve been there in the shadows waiting for you to slip up. Now you have.”
I close my eyes. Just the sight of him feels like a violation of my personal space.
“Aren’t you supposed to read me my Mirrandas?”
He chuckles, “I don’t know anyone named Mirranda. Do you know anyone named Mirranda?”
His partner replies, “Afraid not.”
I open my eyes to find her looming over me.
She says, “Where were you on the night of–”
I say, “I’m going to stop you right there,” as I lurch forward.
The lanky bastard takes the hint.
I say, “It doesn’t matter which night of the week you say, I was at home. I’m a writer. That’s my alibi.”
The lanky agent scoops up the manila folder off the table. He says, “I thought writers preferred to be called authors.”
His partner smirks, “You’ve got to be published before you can start calling yourself an author.”
The lanky agent opens the folder, “Well, it’s your writing that we have questions about. Here’s an interesting piece of prose: ‘How many exhaust fumes would it take to asphyxiate an entire church congregation?’”
The agent in the pant suit says, “I don’t want to take any poetic license, but that sounds like the inquiry of a man who wants to kill a whole mess of people.”
The lanky agent turns the page, “Or how about this little chestnut: ‘Could a gun blast ignite a gas leak?’ Yes, it could, by the way.”
His partner shakes her head, “Really, any spark ought to do the trick.”
I nod. “I know that now. What does the one right after that say?”
The agent makes a show of running his finger down the page. He reads, “Could a hand muffle a gun blast?”
I say, “Put them all together, and what do you get? A cult leader is poised to gas his flock. He discovers a traitor in his midst and pulls a gun to blow them all up. Spoiler alert: the traitor cups his hand over the muzzle, takes his bullet, and saves the congregation.”
The agent in the pants suit raises her eyebrow. “What happens when the cult leader lets off another round? He’s still got a full clip right? What’s to stop the second blast from igniting the room?”
This hadn’t occurred to me. I shrug, “I said I was a writer. I didn’t say I was a good one.”
The lanky agent holds the folder away from his face, pretending to be nearsighted. He says, “Even if that could annul three of your searches, how do you explain questions like:
“How long can you refrigerate human meat before it goes bad?
What’s the ingredient in cough syrup that can be used to cook crystal meth?”
“What’s a lethal dose of water?”
“How long can you keep someone awake before they start to go mad?”
“What’s the longest time that anyone has survived a hunger strike?”
“How much urine can you drink before you die?”
“How many corpses fit into an antique steamer trunk with a traditional Victorian dome lid? See that one’s really specific–”
I shake my head, “Research.”
He continues, “How deep is a shallow grave?”
“What’s a tasteless odorless poison that wouldn’t show up in a toxicology report?”
I say, “Give me an ‘R.’ Give me an ‘E.’ Give me an ‘S’–”
“Wait wait wait, stop.” The agent in the pants suit makes the universal sign for time out. She turns to her partner, “You know, I swear the lab geeks programed an algorithm to exclude common search inquiries by writers.”
He nods with a look of recollection. “I think you’re right, but it only seems to work on good writers.”
His partner rubs her temples with her eyes on the floor. She says, “We need to broaden it to include the horrible ones too.”
I hold up my wrists, still bound in twist ties. I say, “Well, now that that’s all squared away, hows about we loosen these restraints? I’m starting to loose circulation in my everything.”
The tall lanky agent ducks under the table. He reaches into a box I hadn’t noticed until now. He says, “Not so fast Hemingway.”
He throws a folder the size of a phonebook onto the table.
He says, “There’s still the matter of all your Tweets.”
I lower my head, “Here we go.”