An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 4

9 Nov

The air-raid siren sounded again from Sintek’s pants and his face curled up into one of strained sorrow. ‘Jeez Louise! Listen, Pens …’
‘Hold my thought?’

Sintek smiled and pointed a finger-gun at him with a cock of his head. ‘You’re way ahead of me, pal. I’ll be right back, I swear on my mother’s good grave!’ He was out of the room by the time he finished his sentence.

Pensivemo sighed and went to his bed to sit down.

Just as he did, there came a sputtering of noises over the intercom. ‘Hello?’ Pensivemo called.

‘Yes, eh, Mr. Croach?’

‘Croce,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Mr. Croce, we were just checking up on you to make sure that everything was being properly taken care of.’

‘You wouldn’t happen to know where I could purchase some cigarettes would you?’

There was white noise for a moment and interrupted spurts of sentence.

‘I’m sorry?’ Pensivemo called.

‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ the person on the other end said. ‘I was just calling because I understand that you’re scheduled for an appointment this afternoon with Rover Swindell.’
‘I am?’

‘Oh … well … Alice said you requested the meeting and she scheduled it for you.’

Pensivemo groaned and put a hand to his face. ‘Who’s Alice?’

‘She’s our level C receptionist.’

‘Great. Okay. I mean, why am I meeting with eh …’
‘Swindell.’

‘Why am I meeting with him? I mean, is it something you think I should carry through with?’

‘I would recommend it seeing how he’s a very busy man. His time is very divided and he’s very in-demand, you know. I’ll let you in on a little secret between you and me. If I were you, I’d just go anyway, even if it was a mistake. You can think of something to talk with him about on the way if you don’t have anything particular in mind.’

‘But what do …’ He sighed. ‘Never mind. Thank you.’

‘Do you need someone to guide you there?’

‘Yeah because I’m not sure where he is.’

‘Very well. Alice will be there shortly. Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Croachy?’

‘You know where I can buy cigarettes?’

‘Oh … Probably a corner store, I would imagine.’

‘And where are those?’

‘Well, they’d be on corners.’ A little embarrassed laugh.

‘Very well,’ Pensivemo said, defeated. ‘Thank you.’

After a moment, Alice arrived, She was the same maid he’d spoken to before. She smiled tiredly and said, ‘Alright, are you ready?’

‘Yeah. I think so.’

As they came into the hall, the big man with big biceps who’d briefly detained Pensivemo before nodded at him, saying, sharply, ‘Punk ass bitch.’

Alice gasped.

‘That was for me,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Oh my,’ Alice said. ‘I’m terribly sorry. It’s so political around here.’

‘I’m starting to gather that.’

They came to an elevator which opened up to a group of suited people inside, all smiling, just finishing brief personal conversations and sliding back into whatever business would take them to their respective floors. Pensivemo and Alice got out at level E and joined a crowd of people headed cheerfully toward a room noisy with downturned voices and forced, professional laughter. The restaurant was big, brown and pseudo-antique—a place with a feigned history. There were leafy, green plants between every table divider and baskets of flowers hanging from the ceiling. White candles flickered about the tables and gas-powered fireplaces dividing what could have been one large room into a series of small rooms.
Pensivemo thought it peculiar that Alice didn’t check in with anyone at the front desk. She led him past the hostess and to a booth where there sat a middle-aged man with his horseshoe of hair shaved close to his balding head. He wore thick-framed glasses and a black suit with a yellow and navy-blue striped tie.

Alice nodded him goodbye with a smile and left them alone. This Mr. Swindell glanced briefly at Pensivemo from his menu and back at it, frowning taciturnly. ‘Theeeee pasta bowl here is pretty good, in case you were wondering … But so is the salad, if intensive afternoon carbs make you drowsy like they do me.’

‘Place is nice,’ Pensivemo said.

Rover Swindell turned his face into the air for a moment with a troubled look and back to Pensivemo. ‘Does it smell funny to you in here?’

‘Like what?’

‘Like skunk.’

Pensivemo sniffed into the air, frowned and shrugged. ‘Smells like potato salad and espresso.’

‘Huh. Just me then.’

‘I uh … appreciate you taking time out of your day and …’ Pensivemo decided it would be better to assume than to ask, ‘for lunch.’

‘Oh, it’s just a matter of business. And as far as lunch goes, it’s all free anyway.’

‘Free?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Swindell said. ‘One of the crazy amenities. You don’t know much about this place, do you?’

‘How’s this free?’

‘This place rakes in a lot of money. So eh, Mr. Croce, tell me what I can do for you today.’

‘Well, I’m not sure, first of all.’ Pensivemo sat back and scratched his head. A waitress approached them and they each ordered water. He waited until she smilingly walked away before he said, ‘I’m trying to figure out how I got here, but also I’m trying to figure out the best way to go about fighting eh … my charges. I’m not sure that’s something that … you’re at all concerned with or if I should take this up with someone else.’

‘Your charges you said?’ Swindell laughed visibly but silently.

‘What’s funny?’

‘Who have you been talking to?’

‘Aside from some grumpy receptionist and air-headed maids, Dr. Sintek.’

‘Dr. Sintek,’ Swindell said, amused, a shake of his head.

‘What? Is he not really a doctor?’

‘Oh, he’s a doctor.’

‘Is he a lawyer, even?’

‘He is but he’s …’ Swindell sighed and put his hands together, dodging the ice-waters that the waitress slid close to them. ‘He’s doing something quite particular in his field. You see, right at the moment we’re having a bit of trouble with some competing markets which have divided up from the one main one, you know.’

‘I really don’t know.’

‘Well, let’s put it this way. There are factions that have seen it within their best interest to patrol certain halls here or certain wings. They have the right to be here under the Marketer’s Unimported Guideline Act to make their own laws under our roof, but we can do battle with their own laws by, for the most part, muscle arming them with the power of the state or just sort of avoiding them. People in your position might get into quite a bit of trouble with the more nitpicky factions but once you learn the ropes, you can get good at completely avoiding them altogether without even doing anything in the way of legal action.’

‘So what’s Dr. Sintek have to do with that?’

‘He’s basically a contract lawyer who’s learned the minute and very specific laws of the major marketing factions around here. He basically caters to guys like you—new guys who don’t know much at all. He charges exorbitant amounts and tries to tell you that if you’re loyal to a certain faction, that they can cover part of the cost. I bet he didn’t tell you that part, did he?’

‘No.’

‘The food around here is free, but not the immunity.’

‘So what would you suggest I do?’

Swindell frowned. ‘Man … it really smells like skunk in here. It smells like a damned skunk or like something died. You know?’

‘I really don’t …’ Pensivemo started to smell it. It did, in fact, smell like skunk, with that extra gassy thickness of close proximity. ‘What the hell is that?’

‘It’s got to be some kind of violent, reactionary marketing tactic.’

‘You keep saying “marketing.” I thought this was a jail.’

‘Bet you also thought it was a hospital.’

‘What is it?’

‘I suppose I’ll have to eat my words. It is kind of a jail, or at least, it’s become one. Certain marketers have reserved the right to hold people—who had once complied to their Terms of Service and later transgressed them—in prisons of the specific marketer’s making. We really didn’t think it would go as far as it’s gone but we’re doing a lot better about counteracting the awful petty stuff. It’s all about money, as I’m sure you’ve well gathered by now.’

‘So I’m not in prison but there’re prisons here?’

‘Well, sort of. Yeah. I mean … the prisons, in my mind, are not unlike a very serious game that some kindergarteners might play. Half the prison’s structure is psychological in this case, you know. As long as you’re willing to play these different games with these different factions, or as long as you’re afraid of them, they have power. You’re in their prison for as long as you’re willing to go along with their rules.’

‘So it’s all fake?’

‘No, no, there’s nothing more real. I’m just saying, it’s all very fluid. The rules are subject to you but the different sets of rules are not always subject to one another, and sometimes, the different sets directly subvert or negate one another. Does that make any kind of sense?’

‘Well, my concern is this,’ Pensivemo said. ‘I’m not sure—’ A woman screamed.

Swindell stood to look across the divider. The light in the restaurant dimmed and outside, through the windows, the sky was quickly filling with black clouds.

‘Storm?’ Pensivemo said.

‘Oh shit,’ Swindell muttered. ‘Come on.’

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