“AS-Masks?” I repeated, hoping my disappointment was well-hidden.
“It appears that we’re footing the budget for AS-Mask production.”
“The Energy Commission.”
We both turned our attention back to the screens. Blain made his way through the door, and Helen was involved in some parting ritual with Busy. There was an embrace. Warm smiles.
“What interest would the Energy Commission have in preserving people’s anonymity?” I asked.
“That’s just it,” the Professor said. “It has no interest in that at all.” He stood back up. “Which means that there must be something more to those masks than meets the eye. Furthermore, as though it weren’t mysterious enough, the masks themselves were apparently fashioned after the face of our angry little friend Asseem.”
“Asseem? But what does he have to do with—”
“Again, I don’t have complete information just yet.” He gave my shoulder a fatherly pat. “But know that your questions are my own, and I intend to have them answered.”
I looked down at the floor. I was ashamed at having doubted the significance of the Professor’s pursuit. “Dear lord,” I said.
A moment later our silence was interrupted by a small alarm, and I glanced back to my work to see Helen exiting out the lobby’s revolving door. Rocket slipped out at her heels. Busy had disappeared altogether.
“It looks like you should get back to work,” the Professor said.
“And as for the warrant, I’ll look into that as well, but I think for now you ought to simply stick to what you do best. Should Zara get herself arrested, she couldn’t be worse off than she is at the moment.”
I paused for a second. I hadn’t thought of it that way. The warrant had until then only meant yet another complication. Seeing as how she was presently walking through Seattle’s underground with she barely knew, I understood how it might ultimately simplify things. “Agreed,” I said.
The Professor slipped out of the room.
Of the three things now rattling around in my head, the fact of Asseem’s involvement, however oblique, seemed to settle the other two mysteries, as though after finding a few foreign words one found the alphabet of their origin, and knew at that moment it would only be a matter of time. Asseem was someone one expected to turn up in unexpected places, at unexpected times, or what I like to call a friendly variable – though you can’t predict its behavior analytically, a more intuitive approach can often be rewarding. You must simply let go.
The second time my surveillance work was obstructed during the Zara period occurred no more than a year after the first – not long, in fact, before Zara met Jack, and became Helen. Fortunately, this time there’d been far less drama than the first, but it was equally as memorable for the fact that it marked a sharp departure for me as a Citizen Surveillant, informing the way I went on to conduct myself throughout my career to date. If the lesson of the first case was that, however high you might be up the mountain, there is always someone with a better view, the lesson of the second case was this: in this business, respect rules. This may come as a surprise given the very nature of our responsibilities, but without respect, the integrity of the entire operation would be in jeopardy.
Let me explain.
When we met Asseem, he’d already created a small niche for himself, working the 5th Avenue theatre strip as a “translator and guide to urban culture.” But that was just one step toward his goal. Soon before Augustus Stiles, in a very widely publicized decision, was appointed to a highly sought-after seat in the Department of Homeland Security, Asseem had been able to convince the man to lend him seed money to start his own company: Street Cred, Inc. Street Cred took Asseem’s skill set to the next level of entrepreneurship, and instead of simply translating the language or the meaning of scenes already on the big screen, Asseem’s company began to help get them there, lending authenticity to their scripting and adding new a level of detail to the once coarse source material. Simply put, Street Cred took scenes written to portray “urban” and/or minority culture, and found ways to enact them in real life, using unwitting participants, by leading target “Ignorants” through highly choreographed situations. The dialogue was then captured, as was the body language, and any other detail revealed during the enactment that might add to the authenticity, or “cred,” of the scene when recreated, finally, in the studio.
For the most part, I monitored this in passing. Asseem was not my subject, and his dealings were only relevant insofar as they affected Zara. I had to track him, of course, and I studied their interactions to learn his particular type of influence over her, how to predict it and when to expect it, but as for his choreographed scenes, his work, I only saw those that Zara watched – and since she considered the whole business sad and distasteful, I was fortunately spared the bulk of them. But all this changed when, one day, Asseem asked Zara to participate.
“Are you kidding?” she said.
After some initial squabbling, Asseem explained that his employers were attempting a slightly more ambitious social choreography, and needed Zara’s participation for it to be successful.
“Why me?” she asked.
After Asseem admitted that he didn’t know, I decided to find out for myself. This was, I reasoned, going to directly affect my subject, and I had a keen interest in why they’d solicit Zara’s involvement so specifically. Asseem, however self-righteous he could be, normally respected her wish to keep her distance from his work. He’d made honest attempts to engage her in the beginning, but after months of her refusal, the speech act became almost illocutionary, accomplishing in word alone what had once been a request for action. That he was pressing the issue this time surprised both Zara and I, and as Zara went on to actually consider participating, I investigated.
I waited for a lull in Zara activity—which came a day later in the form of a meeting with her new “business partner” Knuckle—and turned my gaze on Asseem. My team had tracked him to a large, storage property in a then rapidly developing area south of downtown. As I took over the surveillance I was debriefed of any noteworthy details surrounding the exercise, a customary handoff ritual maintained even between partners who’ve shared the helm. In this case, there were three: the building was unwired, there was strange activity in the parking lot, and there were so-called “blind spots” in the surveillance data. That the building was unwired could be a pain—a fact dependent on certain factors that could impede non-primary surveillance methods—but there were plenty of secondary methods at my disposal. That there were large vehicles outside the building, unloading medical and laboratory equipment, was certainly strange. Racks of inpatient gowns, sterilized glassware, and all sorts of lab-related gadgetry was being moved into the building. What possible need could there be for this equipment in an old abandoned warehouse? But there was no indication that any of this had anything to do with Asseem, so I postponed investigation. Who knew what the city was up to, or even what branch? Besides, the other issue was of more immediate concern.
Now, because certain members of my team were newer recruits, I forgave them much—in retrospect, probably more than I should have. In this case my assumption was actually that they’d encountered limits in their ability to manipulate the available imagery, to piece together a solid ghost of the events using the multi-modal data at their disposal. They were simply too green. But when I took the helm I noticed immediately that the equipment was working fine, or seemed to be. Audio, magnetic, satellite, infrared, all systems were cleared by diagnostic. I began to map the building. I got through a good third of it before I found what they’d described. A large swath of the space was simply unavailable to any of the devices at my disposal. I tracked beyond it and found another. Then another. And these weren’t just small interstitial spaces, or vague patches of partially obscured data. Entire floors were blotted out, demarcated by sharp lines. It was as if multi-dimensional curtains had been drawn throughout the premises. The building was living a private life.
“Looks like we’ve got some blind spots,” I said.
I wanted to give the impression that I had things under control. The kids were in my care, and though I’d been on the job for just under a year, for better or worse, I felt responsible for presenting a stable image of Citizen Surveillance. Of course, I was moderately anxious. I’d never heard of blind spots. What the hell were blind spots? I began to fiddle with the instrumentation, looking for a way in. If I could get just some kind of signal from any one of my guns, there’d be a more focused target for the others. There were two or three understudies hovering over my shoulder, and although it made me nervous, I thought it would defy my purposes to dismiss them. I needed them to see me in action. I needed them to learn how to finesse the guns.
I intuitively began with sound. Realizing that broad sweeps would never penetrate whatever obscuring force I’d encountered, I trained several highly focused sound guns at a discrete section of a smaller blind spot in a kind of lattice, turned up the gain on my speakers, and began combing my way through. With no target (which is rare), the white noise of a sound gun is a strange, unsettling thing. The small snaps, scrapes, and shivers that comprise “silence” become, if amplified, an almost eerie gurgling. I’ve also heard it described as insectile, and sure enough, the sensation that runs up the back of your neck when listening to it is akin to the response some people have when catching sight of a too-close cockroach, or when put to the task of spearing a live worm on a hook. It is a vaguely slithering mucous-y sound accompanied by a hint of tiny bursting bubbles.
After about ten minutes of this, at high volume, blasting through the Port, I’d lost at least one of my on-lookers to uncontrollable shivers, and was coming to the end of the first blind spot I’d approached. I was losing patience, and beginning, I felt, to give a bad impression to the new recruits. Indeed, I was about to try a different approach altogether, when the white noise was abruptly interrupted by an indecipherable, ear-bleeding roar. Everyone in the room jumped, and my startled hands jerked away from the spot that had caused the racket. After recovering, I moved back over the spot I’d found. The explosive noise returned, though being this time prepared, I was able to turn the volume down while remaining over it’s source, until what we heard was a series of bark-like utterances. It didn’t sound like speech at all, really, though clearly I was on to something. Now all that was left was fine-tuning. The room erupted into applause, and there were more than a few pats on my back for what was obviously a surveillance victory.
I still maintain that if I’d been stubborn enough to continue my investigation, I would have worked my right through that curtain, and revealed not only what was being said, but who was saying it. But like I’ve told you, respect is of critical importance in this business, and if you don’t give it, you won’t get it, and if you don’t get it, your job is going to be exponentially more difficult.
Just as the applause died down and I’d set about the task of cleaning up the signal I’d uncovered, the Port’s phone rang. It was Carla. Carla had been one of my classmates in the beginning. She was a very unassuming, non-descript woman until she spoke, when her gruff and chronically peevish voice spoke of a person who’d had to overcome serious obstacles to attain the insider position of privilege she now guarded unambiguously. No one was going to take it away from her. Similarly, no one was going to make fun of her cardigan sweaters and horribly permed hair. We knew it was a distorted reflection of ourselves, and we accepted it as one accepts a parent’s use of one’s childhood slang – it seems all wrong, but a deeply embarrassed acknowledgment that you feel foolish saying it yourself prevents you from making any but the most superficial attempts to prevent future misusage. Besides, Carla was someone one wanted on one’s side: fiercely loyal when she felt it was deserved.
“That’s a pretty neat trick, Max,” she said, deadpan. I suspected sarcasm, but I was so taken aback by her call itself that I didn’t have time to think this through.
“Carla!” I said. I went for convivial.
“I wonder if you’d mind doing me a favor and backing the fuck off.”
“Let’s save ourselves some time here Max.”
“I couldn’t help notice that someone was breaking through a scrambler blacking out an area containing the watchjob of yours truly.”
“Oh! Carla, I honestly had no—”
“Of course not. Point being I can only assume that whoever’s responsible for the scrambler in the first place stands a pretty good chance also of noticing this very fact.”
“Really? So you think—”
“Yes, I think.”
“So in the interest of not exposing my work, you know, I’m asking politely for you to back the fuck off.”
“Yes. I think I—”
“Because stop me if I’m wrong but I can’t see you being too happy if something came along and accidentally exposed you to your subject, by accident.”
“Carla, really, my apologies.”
“Max, really, I ain’t asking for apologies. I’m asking for you to—”
“Back the fuck off. Yes. I hear you loud and clear. I will abso—”
“Great. See you around.”
Then she hung up. Now as is probably clear, I wasn’t quite prepared for Carla’s intervention. I was pretty wrapped up in my own process, frankly, and I’d gotten a bit carried away. I’d like to think that, had I taken a moment to consider the implications of my actions, I would have made sure that in attempting to break past such a pointed and willful obstacle I was not stepping on anyone’s toes let alone in any way threatening the integrity of a fellow Citizen Surveillant’s operation. I would of course also like to think that other Citizen Surveillants, in a similar position, would do the same.
Though having been caught off guard by Carla, and admitting a degree of short-sightedness with regard to my actions in the first place, I will say that I thought on my feet where my trainees were concerned, and smoothed over what might otherwise have been seen as something unanticipated.
“Let this therefore be considered a lesson in respecting the surveillance needs of the people around you,” I said, pivoting my chair to face the room. “Of course, were this a real scenario, I would not even have attempted to break past the scramble without first making sure that no other watchjobs were involved.”
There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the room, and I could tell the trainees, though understanding the lesson, would nonetheless rather have heard what was being said behind the curtain. I can’t say I blame them. But sometimes things can get quite messy when you expose what isn’t supposed to be seen.
I left the aspiring Citizen Surveillants to wait outside the building for Asseem to reemerge, and returned to the Port tracking Zara’s meeting with Knuckle. It had evidently gone well, and despite the calamitous event that was Zara’s own stage show, they were developing a broader agreement that involved franchising the Dirty Doghouse along with licenses of specific Dirty Dance routines that Zara had been developing to appeal specifically to Doghouse patrons. (I mention as an aside, that knowing now that Zara was, at that point, so close to abandoning the entire world she was still so determined to create, I am really at a loss to create a superstructure for her narrative that joins her ambitions with this behavior in a meaningful and authentic way. Obviously there must be one, but this is an area where I’ve encountered a limit to my ability to fulfill my duty and role.)
At any rate, these earlier episodes were certainly surfacing as I found myself again in the position of being unable to access a complete picture of the events I was charged with watching. But just as before, and as at that point recommended by the Professor as he returned to his own sleuthing, when in doubt of the overarching forces driving my watchjobs forward, I had simply to stick to what I knew best. I had simply to watch.
END CHAPTER 26