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Dealer of Realities
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978-619-02-0557-9
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Rating (24)
4.125 24
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Weight
503 gr.
Pages
400
Published
09 December 2019

Dealer of Realities

What if you were offered the perfect digital drug?

There are no bans in the near future. Consumption has reached its limit, morality is no longer fashionable, religion has become fast food. Humanity is mired in entertainment, debauchery and drugs. The elite has a new kind of entertainment - a personal reality in which any, even the most vicious and criminal fantasy can be realized. A new technoculture created by a mysterious media corporation promises everyone endless pleasures and eternal life in a synthesized personal reality. 

"A funny, witty and extremely readable novel. A sinister satire of a supposedly fictional society that we really already live in. A book you will hardly leave. And which you will often remember." - Ivo Siromakhov

"Bulgaria needs this provocative and rebellious novel!" - Radina Kardzhilova

About the Author
Nicholas  Dimitroff

Nicholas Dimitrov - a visionary and a dreamer. An intellectual hedonist and collector of impressions.

Bulgarian polyglot, who knows eleven languages. Written in Russian, his debut novel Dealer of Realities causes great scandal in Russia and Ukraine.

A vivid New Age movement representative, agnostic, self-made personality and passionate traveler, Nicholas Dimitrov feels equally comfortable in the mountains of Tibet and in the Black Rock Desert during the Burning Man Festival.

Excerpt

The Dealer of Realities
by
Nicholas Dimitroff
Translated from the Russian by Ilona Chavasse

 

Book One
0.

            “What I want is to fuck Claudia Schiffer. Preferably right here, on this podium.”
The client abruptly fell silent, as though startled by his own request.  Everyone else, on the contrary, appeared at ease.  A middle-aged man in a platinum-grey suit, eye-watering tie and diamond tie pin nodded approvingly and rubbed his goatee. His brisk assistant, a much younger man sporting glasses in hip wooden frames, was bent over his tablet, his fingers running over the keyboard with practiced speed
            “Agreed,” said the older man.
The client now began to squirm on the leather sofa and cast anxious looks around the room. They were in the penthouse office of the ‘TransReality’ skyscraper, a sumptuous meeting space for VIP clients. The giant but tasteful nudes on the walls, the minimalist designer furnishings, the floor-to-ceiling windows, not to mention a private elevator… all this was reassuring. Yet he found the subject of their discussion hard to believe.
            “You can really do this?”
            “Absolutely.”
            “But how? That bitch thinks she’s a super-star… She acts like she doesn’t know I’m alive! I’ve tried everything, every means of getting her attention! This is now a matter of principle. “
            “If your wish is proving impossible in the existing reality, we will construct a new, alternate one for you,” spoke the younger man. “These are exactly the kind of solutions our corporation provides.”
            “And how much would it cost?”
            “Oh, a good deal. I doubt that is something to trouble you. There’s another thing, however. A little nuance…”
            “What nuance?”
            “You’ve expressed an interest in – let’s call it “integrating” yourself into the supermodel. That’s not an issue. However, while you are having her, we’ll have your brain. Everyone will be satisfied, you’ll see.


1.

            I am inside an enormous space, which I am seeing as if in cross-section. And although I’ve never been here before, I know exactly what it is. This place is the ShitNet.
Its spacious, high-ceilinged hall is filled with row upon endless row of toilets, disappearing into darkness at the far end. Snarls of clingy pipe stretch away from these toilets and down into an underground cesspit, a space far vaster than the hall above. There are many people already here at the ShitNet, and new visitors are constantly arriving; the place look fit to burst. Silently, the people approach, but instead of sitting down, they kneel and press their faces to the porcelain bowls, so they can flush their most secret thoughts, their hidden desires and futile hopes.
Streams of psychic waste gush down, mingling as they flow, down into a toxic lake that foams and hisses poisonously against the walls of the gigantic tank. Torrents from above now surge down more violently, and the waves that break and retreat from the ringing walls close over my head; I know that the reservoir is about to overflow and the colourless swill will burst back up though the toilets like a musical fountain – except that instead of music there will only be the horrified screams of the ShitNet’s customers – and no one will hear my screams. I will be lost below, crushed and suffocated.
I want to run from the sheer horror of it all. I cast about for the exit and let out a soundless scream. As if in reply, I hear the flapping of wings.  A giant raven flies past my face, and I wake.
These inexplicably realistic dreams have become a torment. Neither antidepressants not sedatives work; all I can do is try and bear it.
In the kitchen, I hold my mouth under the tap and drink greedily, then stand at the window for a long time, gazing at night-time Singapore. I’m struggling to recall fragments of the dream, almost without meaning to do it. When my head starts to clear, I glance at the computer monitor sitting on the kitchen table, just as automatically. The chat window shows a message from Charon, my employer. “A big new project. Be at the station at 11:00.” Finally, a job! After a dry spell recently, I’m low on cash and I need work.  Maybe that’s why I’m having these idiotic dreams. 
Freelancer life is like a rollercoaster: today you’re drinking expensive cognac on the balcony of your elite apartment, waiting for the restaurant delivery and enjoying the view over the Botanical Gardens. Tomorrow, it’s cheap ramen at the local greasy spoon, as you swipe away reminders of missed bill payments that pop up on your device. The idea that I’ll soon be able to collect an advance and return to the former status has a calming effect on me. I am habituated to the little artificial world inside my apartment, whose walls insulate me from the tumult and noise of this town. I could spend months in here, just reading and drawing my dreams on vast canvases. But, alas, living peacefully in a small two-room apartment under the eaves of a luxe skyscraper doesn’t come cheap.
The screen clock is showing three minutes to three a.m. I won’t be able to go back to sleep. Next door, the drug-addict I’ve got for a neighbour is howling like a trapped animal. Maybe it was his screams that woke me, and not the strangling delirium I’ve just come up from. Twenty years ago this guy could have gotten the death penalty, and to be honest sometimes I want to kill him myself. Other times I pity him terribly; his screams serve to remind me that you can buy yourself into a swish apartment, in a luxe development complete with roof terrace and sweet-smelling elevator, but even here, New Singapore will still get to you. The once ultra-conservative city has changed beyond recognition so you can still end up with a junkie howling with the night terrors next door. Or else a deafening rave shot through with the shrieks of youths partying hard on the balcony next to yours. “A spoonful of shit in every barrel of honey,” Charon’s favourite saying goes, “you just have to know where to find it.”
I bang on the wall with my fist and he quietens down – the screams morph into an indistinct muttering, muffled now by the sound-proofing in the walls. Take a break, buddy. And next time, try to find a better dealer, yeah?

 

I stumble towards the bathroom, thinking how alike we are, my apartment and I… Bland, painted walls, no pictures, no design features, no cute nick-nacks, nothing branded, nothing to do with me. Honestly, you have to really try, to rid your habitat of any trace of personality – and I don’t mean minimalism, or asceticism, I mean a complete lack of personality. If you’ve got no face, you ain’t gonna lose it – as Charon liked to tell me, back in the day, when he was first teaching me the basics of the trade. I took this rule on board. Not that I’d ever had a personality of my own - I’ve always hidden behind invented personas.

I clamber into the shower. I get dressed and leave the building, with the intention of not returning until after I’ve seen Charon. It’s early September and the end of the rainy season is nowhere in sight. Even now there’s a fine rain, or else a damp mist, swirling in the air. Within a minute my t-shirt is sticking to my back. I hurry to switch on the air-con as soon as I’m in my car.  The radio is switched on automatically, but I kill it instantly: I don’t want to hear anything but the tweeting of the birds, who my some miracle survive this city, the crackling noise of the cicadas, the distant police sirens, the barely audible chugging of a train, as it hurtles from nowhere to nowhere.

I’ve no real plan for how I’m going to get through this night, or at least what’s left of it. Sunday night means the nightclubs are all closed and even the twenty-four-hour bars are empty.This is how things are even here in Singapore, which has a reputation for never sleeping. I’m going at two hundred klicks an hour now, without really meaning to, on an elevated highway. I’m flying past scores of tenth-floor windows, dark, with the occasional rectangle lit up tonight by someone else’s insomnia. The night-time city blinks in and out of the fog, with long flashes of the stroboscopes that send up brightly lit advertising addressed to nobody in particular. As I take an exit ramp down, I nearly crash into a virulently orange sports car, which has appeared out of nowhere and straight onto the crossing. A shriek of brakes, a squeal of tires; the orange car spins, and shooting past I can see the terrified faces of the passengers, a boy and girl, very young, probably still teenagers. It takes a few more minutes and a dozen crossed streets for me to realise I’d nearly killed them and myself into the bargain. But the understanding, brings no feelings with it – not fear, not despair, nothing at all. I have never feared death. Even my parents never knew this, I hid it from them, not wanting to seem like a freak. Only Charon knew. Was that why he chose me?

A few minutes more and I’m at the edge of Geylang, now known as “district five”, where the hookers patiently await night-wanderers such as myself. I prefer to spend my leisure time with girls like these, who don’t try and understand me or demand my attention.  In fact, the first girl I come across – slim, child-like features, barely more than twenty, to look at - fits my sexual preferences very adequately.
I wake up, mid-morning, in a cheap hotel room looking out towards an industrial estate, with a panorama of noxious smoke coming up through chimneys. The hooker was still asleep, with her arms wrapped around skinny, tucked-in knees, looking touchingly helpless. Pausing for a last look at her cute dimples and to check she hadn’t cleaned out my pockets during the night, I leave for my meeting with Charon. But first, I decide, I’m going to pop into church.
It isn’t that I’m especially religious – I just like the feels you get inside a church. The close air and the narcotic clouds of incense seem to make my brain work faster. Perhaps it is then that I’m closest to really knowing in my bones the irremediable senselessness of being. Despite the bustle of the megacity this feeling is natural to me and it often helps me hide my own vulnerability behind an ironic mask. 
The dingy little universal church is squeezed in between a strip joint and a gadget shop, and at this time of day its badly-lit foyer is empty.  I enter one of the confession capsules. The doors slide closed behind me and the dark wraparound screen lights up with a running text:

            “PLEASE SELECT YOUR RELIGION”    
From the drop-down menu, I click on “moderate Catholicism”.
            “FREE OR DONATION MODE?”
I’m feeling generous today, and I don’t really feel like watching a reel of commercials before my confession. All right, I’ll splurge today. Charon will be sending money soon.  I pay by touching my phone to the reader and select the “Godly” package, which includes burning incense, lighting candles, recorded chanting and of course the interactive confession itself. Payment made, the screens around me bring up a Catholic cathedral, dozens of candles flickering around the altar. The capsule is now full of my favorite incense, with the soft voices of young choristers wafting quietly from the speakers mounted on the ceiling. which happens to be one of my favourite smells, and ceiling-mounted speakers transmit the voices of young choristers. The on-screen text now asks me to kneel – which I will definitely resist despite the small prie-dieu extruded from the floor for this purpose.. 
“In the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen!” I say, to get things started. The first avatar to appear is a swarthy bishop in heavy eyeglass frames. I swat it aside; too irritating.
“May the Lord ever dwell in your heart…” comes a voice from the speakers. The voice has a strong Indian accent. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“A week, Father. I have sinned since then.”
“How have you sinned, my son?”
Right, time to play the penitent, otherwise what’s the point of this whole circus?
“I have lied, stolen, taken the name of the Lord in vain, masturbated, taken drugs and fucked hookers. I think that’s it, though I might well have missed something.”
“These are terrible sins, my son,” says the bland voice indifferently. “But I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
“Oh, and one more thing. I don’t believe in God, either.” The prospect of seeing Charon makes me feel reckless and  .
“The Lord forgives,” says the priest meekly.
“Fantastic How’s the weather down in Bangalore?”
“I’m in Calcutta, my son. Very hot here, almost forty.”
“Have a nice day, holy father.”
“Go in peace.”
           
I leave the church feeling much better – that’s the power of confession for you! But now I really have to hurry, to get to my rendez-vous with Charon in good time.

 

2.

Obviously, Charon was not his real name. It was a nickname I’d given him to reflect his love of money; he was the kind of man who would make the dead pay for their passage into eternity. My employer, however, didn’t seem to mind. He’d given me a nickname of my own, shortening it to a single letter - zed That is what he called me and only on special occasions did he ever use my real name, Zoltan.

I got to the underground station where we tend to meet a little ahead of time. Morning rush is over, and it will be a while before the lunch rush begins, so the station is nearly empty, a dozen people at most. While I wait, I entertain myself by trying to spot Charon’s bodyguard, who always appears among the waiting commuters just ahead of him, in order to scope out the place. It’s always a different person, but naturally they all have something in common - Charon. So who could it be today? That guy with the book of crosswords, leaning on a pillar? Or the pumped-up dude with the thick neck, on the edge of the platform staring at his cell phone? Could it be the dreadlocked goth, big tattoo obscuring half his face, over on the bench there? He seems an unlikely type to be a bodyguard, and so I’m almost sure he’s working for Charon. He  likes to surround himself with people of that sort in the belief that looking homeless makes them invisible.
To pass the time, I take out a notepad and sketch the dreaded one, carefully reproducing the intersections of his tattoo. He spots me and glares with a mixture of surprise and disdain. Not that it puts me off; it’s amusing more than anything else. I finish my sketch just as Charon appears.

For those who don’t know Charon, there isn’t much to look at – an old man of vaguely Asiatic and seriously homeless appearance His long gray hair is pulled into a stringy bunch with a rubber band, his unkempt beard hangs over an old shapeless sweater, jeans of unclear origin and wrecked old boots. No one would ever suspect him for a clandestine underground boss, the head man of a whole host of street gangs, fraudsters and thieves that managed to operate with impunity on Singapore’s streets even during the worst crackdowns. Only his eyes – sharp and darting - betray this master of mimicry.  And the complete lack of facial expression, as though his face is cast from a wax mask. 
A flick of the eyes is all it takes for him to take stock of the surroundings and spot me on the platform. Impassively he walks past me, then circles back to sit next to me on the bench. In the beginning I found all the spy-stuff merely amusing, but I quickly learned that there’s good reason for it.
We don’t do chit-chat when we meet, but always get straight to business. Talk about the weather and other conventional niceties are a waste of precious time. And Charon dislikes being out in public for too long.
“Something special this time, Zed,” he tells me. “Do you know anything about “Trans-Reality Corp.?”
I shake my head to indicate I know nothing. I’ve heard the name before, I think, but nothing specific comes to mind.
“Their HQ is here in Singapore,” Charon says, helpfully.
This doesn’t give me anything to go on, either. After this little country became a free economic zone and a hotspot for cryptocurrency trading, thousands of multinationals moved their headquarters to Singapore. The old man can see he’ll have to give me the long version and settles more comfortably on the bench.
“They used to be a shop called “Global Media Group,” and they actually were in media then. Big things: rolling news channels, PR and advertising agencies, movies, entertainment content, and so on. A few years ago they re-structured. Most media platforms they owned were sold off, thousands of employees laid off. Of more than thirty founders, only a few of the biggest shareholders were left – the rest taken over, bankrupted or otherwise done out of their shares. After that, a total rebrand and new team of specialists from around the globe. Many interesting acquisitions. They swallowed up several large research companies. None of these were made public, but there’s always a trace to be found -pharmaceuticals, genetics, AI, to name just a few. Recently the corporation bought up all the automated confession churches.”
“Funny, I just went to one, this morning.”
“But you’re not religious?”
“You don’t have to believe to get something out of church.”
“All right, that’s your own affair. Anyway, so the founder and current head of “TransReality” is one Saul Ga’adi, the media magnate. I don’t know much about him, and altogether he’s a bit of a mystery. He’s from somewhere in Central Asia, I think, but he’s been based in Singapore for the last five years. See if you unearth some info on him, we’ll need to know who we’re dealing with. All I know for sure is that he is extremely influential and astonishingly wealthy. He’s not exactly a party animal, or someone that talks to journalists much, so he’s hard to get to…”
With a sideways flick of his eyes, Charon drops his voice even lower.
“Now to the point. “TransReality” is in the last stages of some new project, rumoured to be revolutionary. No one outside the company has any idea what it could be. You can imagine how badly the big market players would like to know what it is.”
Something is still puzzling to me. “But how is that possible? A huge corporation, a trans-national project, and not a single leak?”
“Oh, there have been leaks, sure. But they all look an awful lot like disinformation. So here’s where you come in. Recently I heard that they are looking to hire a PR specialist. That’s our chance, Zed, and you can’t miss it.”
“No worries, boss,” I tell him. “You know I’m second to none.”
We then talk about the financials, which are more than generous. In fact, the sum he names is several magnitudes higher than anything he’s paid me previously. But rather than look overly overjoyed, I grimace:
“That risky, is it?”
“Well, this time you’ll need to be especially careful.” Charon seems thoughtful. “That habit of yours, of skating on the edge, it can land you in trouble one day.”
Edges are not a problem if you’ve no fear of heights, I say to myself, remembering last night’s episode with the yellow car. But I get it. If Charon himself is warning me to look sharp, he’s probably about to send me into some sort of hell.
“How long am I supposed to work there?” Always good to have things clear.
“At least two or three months. That should give you enough time to ferret things out.”
“What if they release their revolutionary product ahead of schedule?”
“Unlikely to happen earlier than six months from now.”
“And the interview?”
“Noon tomorrow. They have your resume already.”
“Nothing like waiting for me to agree, right?”

With a non-committal grunt, he hands me “my” resume. A quick scan reveals an employment history every bit as impressive as the stated personal attributes of the applicant in question.
“Their HR people have this; you’ll be expected.”
“And my “previous employers” are going to confirm all this?” I return the piece of paper which he tears up into tiny pieces without thinking, out of his completely ingrained sense of caution.
“Naturally. We take care of everything, always have. Never fear.”

Whenever Charon says “we,” he clearly means not him and me, but rather himself and someone else. I’ve known Charon for many years now, but I wouldn’t mind finding out to find out who that someone else might be.

The Dealer of Realities
by
Nicholas Dimitroff
Translated from the Russian by Ilona Chavasse

 

Book One
0.

            “What I want is to fuck Claudia Schiffer. Preferably right here, on this podium.”
The client abruptly fell silent, as though startled by his own request.  Everyone else, on the contrary, appeared at ease.  A middle-aged man in a platinum-grey suit, eye-watering tie and diamond tie pin nodded approvingly and rubbed his goatee. His brisk assistant, a much younger man sporting glasses in hip wooden frames, was bent over his tablet, his fingers running over the keyboard with practiced speed
            “Agreed,” said the older man.
The client now began to squirm on the leather sofa and cast anxious looks around the room. They were in the penthouse office of the ‘TransReality’ skyscraper, a sumptuous meeting space for VIP clients. The giant but tasteful nudes on the walls, the minimalist designer furnishings, the floor-to-ceiling windows, not to mention a private elevator… all this was reassuring. Yet he found the subject of their discussion hard to believe.
            “You can really do this?”
            “Absolutely.”
            “But how? That bitch thinks she’s a super-star… She acts like she doesn’t know I’m alive! I’ve tried everything, every means of getting her attention! This is now a matter of principle. “
            “If your wish is proving impossible in the existing reality, we will construct a new, alternate one for you,” spoke the younger man. “These are exactly the kind of solutions our corporation provides.”
            “And how much would it cost?”
            “Oh, a good deal. I doubt that is something to trouble you. There’s another thing, however. A little nuance…”
            “What nuance?”
            “You’ve expressed an interest in – let’s call it “integrating” yourself into the supermodel. That’s not an issue. However, while you are having her, we’ll have your brain. Everyone will be satisfied, you’ll see.


1.

            I am inside an enormous space, which I am seeing as if in cross-section. And although I’ve never been here before, I know exactly what it is. This place is the ShitNet.
Its spacious, high-ceilinged hall is filled with row upon endless row of toilets, disappearing into darkness at the far end. Snarls of clingy pipe stretch away from these toilets and down into an underground cesspit, a space far vaster than the hall above. There are many people already here at the ShitNet, and new visitors are constantly arriving; the place look fit to burst. Silently, the people approach, but instead of sitting down, they kneel and press their faces to the porcelain bowls, so they can flush their most secret thoughts, their hidden desires and futile hopes.
Streams of psychic waste gush down, mingling as they flow, down into a toxic lake that foams and hisses poisonously against the walls of the gigantic tank. Torrents from above now surge down more violently, and the waves that break and retreat from the ringing walls close over my head; I know that the reservoir is about to overflow and the colourless swill will burst back up though the toilets like a musical fountain – except that instead of music there will only be the horrified screams of the ShitNet’s customers – and no one will hear my screams. I will be lost below, crushed and suffocated.
I want to run from the sheer horror of it all. I cast about for the exit and let out a soundless scream. As if in reply, I hear the flapping of wings.  A giant raven flies past my face, and I wake.
These inexplicably realistic dreams have become a torment. Neither antidepressants not sedatives work; all I can do is try and bear it.
In the kitchen, I hold my mouth under the tap and drink greedily, then stand at the window for a long time, gazing at night-time Singapore. I’m struggling to recall fragments of the dream, almost without meaning to do it. When my head starts to clear, I glance at the computer monitor sitting on the kitchen table, just as automatically. The chat window shows a message from Charon, my employer. “A big new project. Be at the station at 11:00.” Finally, a job! After a dry spell recently, I’m low on cash and I need work.  Maybe that’s why I’m having these idiotic dreams. 
Freelancer life is like a rollercoaster: today you’re drinking expensive cognac on the balcony of your elite apartment, waiting for the restaurant delivery and enjoying the view over the Botanical Gardens. Tomorrow, it’s cheap ramen at the local greasy spoon, as you swipe away reminders of missed bill payments that pop up on your device. The idea that I’ll soon be able to collect an advance and return to the former status has a calming effect on me. I am habituated to the little artificial world inside my apartment, whose walls insulate me from the tumult and noise of this town. I could spend months in here, just reading and drawing my dreams on vast canvases. But, alas, living peacefully in a small two-room apartment under the eaves of a luxe skyscraper doesn’t come cheap.
The screen clock is showing three minutes to three a.m. I won’t be able to go back to sleep. Next door, the drug-addict I’ve got for a neighbour is howling like a trapped animal. Maybe it was his screams that woke me, and not the strangling delirium I’ve just come up from. Twenty years ago this guy could have gotten the death penalty, and to be honest sometimes I want to kill him myself. Other times I pity him terribly; his screams serve to remind me that you can buy yourself into a swish apartment, in a luxe development complete with roof terrace and sweet-smelling elevator, but even here, New Singapore will still get to you. The once ultra-conservative city has changed beyond recognition so you can still end up with a junkie howling with the night terrors next door. Or else a deafening rave shot through with the shrieks of youths partying hard on the balcony next to yours. “A spoonful of shit in every barrel of honey,” Charon’s favourite saying goes, “you just have to know where to find it.”
I bang on the wall with my fist and he quietens down – the screams morph into an indistinct muttering, muffled now by the sound-proofing in the walls. Take a break, buddy. And next time, try to find a better dealer, yeah?

 

I stumble towards the bathroom, thinking how alike we are, my apartment and I… Bland, painted walls, no pictures, no design features, no cute nick-nacks, nothing branded, nothing to do with me. Honestly, you have to really try, to rid your habitat of any trace of personality – and I don’t mean minimalism, or asceticism, I mean a complete lack of personality. If you’ve got no face, you ain’t gonna lose it – as Charon liked to tell me, back in the day, when he was first teaching me the basics of the trade. I took this rule on board. Not that I’d ever had a personality of my own - I’ve always hidden behind invented personas.

I clamber into the shower. I get dressed and leave the building, with the intention of not returning until after I’ve seen Charon. It’s early September and the end of the rainy season is nowhere in sight. Even now there’s a fine rain, or else a damp mist, swirling in the air. Within a minute my t-shirt is sticking to my back. I hurry to switch on the air-con as soon as I’m in my car.  The radio is switched on automatically, but I kill it instantly: I don’t want to hear anything but the tweeting of the birds, who my some miracle survive this city, the crackling noise of the cicadas, the distant police sirens, the barely audible chugging of a train, as it hurtles from nowhere to nowhere.

I’ve no real plan for how I’m going to get through this night, or at least what’s left of it. Sunday night means the nightclubs are all closed and even the twenty-four-hour bars are empty.This is how things are even here in Singapore, which has a reputation for never sleeping. I’m going at two hundred klicks an hour now, without really meaning to, on an elevated highway. I’m flying past scores of tenth-floor windows, dark, with the occasional rectangle lit up tonight by someone else’s insomnia. The night-time city blinks in and out of the fog, with long flashes of the stroboscopes that send up brightly lit advertising addressed to nobody in particular. As I take an exit ramp down, I nearly crash into a virulently orange sports car, which has appeared out of nowhere and straight onto the crossing. A shriek of brakes, a squeal of tires; the orange car spins, and shooting past I can see the terrified faces of the passengers, a boy and girl, very young, probably still teenagers. It takes a few more minutes and a dozen crossed streets for me to realise I’d nearly killed them and myself into the bargain. But the understanding, brings no feelings with it – not fear, not despair, nothing at all. I have never feared death. Even my parents never knew this, I hid it from them, not wanting to seem like a freak. Only Charon knew. Was that why he chose me?

A few minutes more and I’m at the edge of Geylang, now known as “district five”, where the hookers patiently await night-wanderers such as myself. I prefer to spend my leisure time with girls like these, who don’t try and understand me or demand my attention.  In fact, the first girl I come across – slim, child-like features, barely more than twenty, to look at - fits my sexual preferences very adequately.
I wake up, mid-morning, in a cheap hotel room looking out towards an industrial estate, with a panorama of noxious smoke coming up through chimneys. The hooker was still asleep, with her arms wrapped around skinny, tucked-in knees, looking touchingly helpless. Pausing for a last look at her cute dimples and to check she hadn’t cleaned out my pockets during the night, I leave for my meeting with Charon. But first, I decide, I’m going to pop into church.
It isn’t that I’m especially religious – I just like the feels you get inside a church. The close air and the narcotic clouds of incense seem to make my brain work faster. Perhaps it is then that I’m closest to really knowing in my bones the irremediable senselessness of being. Despite the bustle of the megacity this feeling is natural to me and it often helps me hide my own vulnerability behind an ironic mask. 
The dingy little universal church is squeezed in between a strip joint and a gadget shop, and at this time of day its badly-lit foyer is empty.  I enter one of the confession capsules. The doors slide closed behind me and the dark wraparound screen lights up with a running text:

            “PLEASE SELECT YOUR RELIGION”    
From the drop-down menu, I click on “moderate Catholicism”.
            “FREE OR DONATION MODE?”
I’m feeling generous today, and I don’t really feel like watching a reel of commercials before my confession. All right, I’ll splurge today. Charon will be sending money soon.  I pay by touching my phone to the reader and select the “Godly” package, which includes burning incense, lighting candles, recorded chanting and of course the interactive confession itself. Payment made, the screens around me bring up a Catholic cathedral, dozens of candles flickering around the altar. The capsule is now full of my favorite incense, with the soft voices of young choristers wafting quietly from the speakers mounted on the ceiling. which happens to be one of my favourite smells, and ceiling-mounted speakers transmit the voices of young choristers. The on-screen text now asks me to kneel – which I will definitely resist despite the small prie-dieu extruded from the floor for this purpose.. 
“In the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen!” I say, to get things started. The first avatar to appear is a swarthy bishop in heavy eyeglass frames. I swat it aside; too irritating.
“May the Lord ever dwell in your heart…” comes a voice from the speakers. The voice has a strong Indian accent. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“A week, Father. I have sinned since then.”
“How have you sinned, my son?”
Right, time to play the penitent, otherwise what’s the point of this whole circus?
“I have lied, stolen, taken the name of the Lord in vain, masturbated, taken drugs and fucked hookers. I think that’s it, though I might well have missed something.”
“These are terrible sins, my son,” says the bland voice indifferently. “But I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
“Oh, and one more thing. I don’t believe in God, either.” The prospect of seeing Charon makes me feel reckless and  .
“The Lord forgives,” says the priest meekly.
“Fantastic How’s the weather down in Bangalore?”
“I’m in Calcutta, my son. Very hot here, almost forty.”
“Have a nice day, holy father.”
“Go in peace.”
           
I leave the church feeling much better – that’s the power of confession for you! But now I really have to hurry, to get to my rendez-vous with Charon in good time.

 

2.

Obviously, Charon was not his real name. It was a nickname I’d given him to reflect his love of money; he was the kind of man who would make the dead pay for their passage into eternity. My employer, however, didn’t seem to mind. He’d given me a nickname of my own, shortening it to a single letter - zed That is what he called me and only on special occasions did he ever use my real name, Zoltan.

I got to the underground station where we tend to meet a little ahead of time. Morning rush is over, and it will be a while before the lunch rush begins, so the station is nearly empty, a dozen people at most. While I wait, I entertain myself by trying to spot Charon’s bodyguard, who always appears among the waiting commuters just ahead of him, in order to scope out the place. It’s always a different person, but naturally they all have something in common - Charon. So who could it be today? That guy with the book of crosswords, leaning on a pillar? Or the pumped-up dude with the thick neck, on the edge of the platform staring at his cell phone? Could it be the dreadlocked goth, big tattoo obscuring half his face, over on the bench there? He seems an unlikely type to be a bodyguard, and so I’m almost sure he’s working for Charon. He  likes to surround himself with people of that sort in the belief that looking homeless makes them invisible.
To pass the time, I take out a notepad and sketch the dreaded one, carefully reproducing the intersections of his tattoo. He spots me and glares with a mixture of surprise and disdain. Not that it puts me off; it’s amusing more than anything else. I finish my sketch just as Charon appears.

For those who don’t know Charon, there isn’t much to look at – an old man of vaguely Asiatic and seriously homeless appearance His long gray hair is pulled into a stringy bunch with a rubber band, his unkempt beard hangs over an old shapeless sweater, jeans of unclear origin and wrecked old boots. No one would ever suspect him for a clandestine underground boss, the head man of a whole host of street gangs, fraudsters and thieves that managed to operate with impunity on Singapore’s streets even during the worst crackdowns. Only his eyes – sharp and darting - betray this master of mimicry.  And the complete lack of facial expression, as though his face is cast from a wax mask. 
A flick of the eyes is all it takes for him to take stock of the surroundings and spot me on the platform. Impassively he walks past me, then circles back to sit next to me on the bench. In the beginning I found all the spy-stuff merely amusing, but I quickly learned that there’s good reason for it.
We don’t do chit-chat when we meet, but always get straight to business. Talk about the weather and other conventional niceties are a waste of precious time. And Charon dislikes being out in public for too long.
“Something special this time, Zed,” he tells me. “Do you know anything about “Trans-Reality Corp.?”
I shake my head to indicate I know nothing. I’ve heard the name before, I think, but nothing specific comes to mind.
“Their HQ is here in Singapore,” Charon says, helpfully.
This doesn’t give me anything to go on, either. After this little country became a free economic zone and a hotspot for cryptocurrency trading, thousands of multinationals moved their headquarters to Singapore. The old man can see he’ll have to give me the long version and settles more comfortably on the bench.
“They used to be a shop called “Global Media Group,” and they actually were in media then. Big things: rolling news channels, PR and advertising agencies, movies, entertainment content, and so on. A few years ago they re-structured. Most media platforms they owned were sold off, thousands of employees laid off. Of more than thirty founders, only a few of the biggest shareholders were left – the rest taken over, bankrupted or otherwise done out of their shares. After that, a total rebrand and new team of specialists from around the globe. Many interesting acquisitions. They swallowed up several large research companies. None of these were made public, but there’s always a trace to be found -pharmaceuticals, genetics, AI, to name just a few. Recently the corporation bought up all the automated confession churches.”
“Funny, I just went to one, this morning.”
“But you’re not religious?”
“You don’t have to believe to get something out of church.”
“All right, that’s your own affair. Anyway, so the founder and current head of “TransReality” is one Saul Ga’adi, the media magnate. I don’t know much about him, and altogether he’s a bit of a mystery. He’s from somewhere in Central Asia, I think, but he’s been based in Singapore for the last five years. See if you unearth some info on him, we’ll need to know who we’re dealing with. All I know for sure is that he is extremely influential and astonishingly wealthy. He’s not exactly a party animal, or someone that talks to journalists much, so he’s hard to get to…”
With a sideways flick of his eyes, Charon drops his voice even lower.
“Now to the point. “TransReality” is in the last stages of some new project, rumoured to be revolutionary. No one outside the company has any idea what it could be. You can imagine how badly the big market players would like to know what it is.”
Something is still puzzling to me. “But how is that possible? A huge corporation, a trans-national project, and not a single leak?”
“Oh, there have been leaks, sure. But they all look an awful lot like disinformation. So here’s where you come in. Recently I heard that they are looking to hire a PR specialist. That’s our chance, Zed, and you can’t miss it.”
“No worries, boss,” I tell him. “You know I’m second to none.”
We then talk about the financials, which are more than generous. In fact, the sum he names is several magnitudes higher than anything he’s paid me previously. But rather than look overly overjoyed, I grimace:
“That risky, is it?”
“Well, this time you’ll need to be especially careful.” Charon seems thoughtful. “That habit of yours, of skating on the edge, it can land you in trouble one day.”
Edges are not a problem if you’ve no fear of heights, I say to myself, remembering last night’s episode with the yellow car. But I get it. If Charon himself is warning me to look sharp, he’s probably about to send me into some sort of hell.
“How long am I supposed to work there?” Always good to have things clear.
“At least two or three months. That should give you enough time to ferret things out.”
“What if they release their revolutionary product ahead of schedule?”
“Unlikely to happen earlier than six months from now.”
“And the interview?”
“Noon tomorrow. They have your resume already.”
“Nothing like waiting for me to agree, right?”

With a non-committal grunt, he hands me “my” resume. A quick scan reveals an employment history every bit as impressive as the stated personal attributes of the applicant in question.
“Their HR people have this; you’ll be expected.”
“And my “previous employers” are going to confirm all this?” I return the piece of paper which he tears up into tiny pieces without thinking, out of his completely ingrained sense of caution.
“Naturally. We take care of everything, always have. Never fear.”

Whenever Charon says “we,” he clearly means not him and me, but rather himself and someone else. I’ve known Charon for many years now, but I wouldn’t mind finding out to find out who that someone else might be.

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