I was normally more careful about idle chatter or looking at things I wanted. When I saw the broad-shouldered guy leaning on the wall next to my front door, in his tailored black suit, I knew I had messed up, likely I had been caught chatting too close to my personal devices about something I really cared about. Maybe it was my search history, maybe it was something I read or did in the house. There were around thirty cameras in my home on computers,TVs, personal assistant tech, all linked to the internet, and I carried three tracking devices – my phone, my health watch and my smart jacket, wherever I went. I was, like everyone in this messed up urban sprawl, a walking, talking target.
I could make out from his insignia that he was from Cookie Monsters Ltd, one of the bigger and more ferocious marketing gangs in the region. I considered not stopping and driving by the house but something stubborn in me resisted weakness. I lived here. This was my place. Besides, he would know my car and number plate, it would only delay the encounter.
I asked the car to park itself on the street, stepped on to the pavement and walked briskly up the concrete path to my door, with my head down, my shoulders hunched. I just needed to open the door quickly, shut the blinds and go into a room at the back of the house. I could do it, I knew I could do it.
I glanced up, just for a second, to see he was smiling at me, like I was his old friend. He had no doubt been studying me as a personal project. I could see the tips of faded, old green tattoos poking out from his pristine white shirt cuffs and collar, like dark, hidden stories smothered by silk.
“Good afternoon,” he began. His smile was huge. His eyes were fixed in permanent hunting.
I considered what I had purchased recently and I realised straight away he was behind my decisions, small cues and pointers he would have plotted to match moments and markers in my day, a strategist of psychological purchase behavior, tracking me the whole distance of every minute and interaction, every pause and decision. I would find myself hovering over the basket, dragged down the sales pipeline, like a scrap sliding into the black tunnel of a throat.
I once took the time to scan the cookie lists when the ‘acceptance’ pop-up appeared on sites I visited, they trailed into the hundreds. The truth was simple, when I browsed, when I talked near a device, when I looked at something in a shop window, I was scrutinised, I was analysed, and my needs were sold as a package. I wasn’t considering products so much as, I was the product.
To be at my door, he would be pedaling something irresistible, something unreasonably pricey. The Art of War, that oft quoted manual for ‘sales warriors’, it says you should plan to know you are going to win, even before the battle starts. That was marketing’s guidebook, that was marketing’s mantra.
“What is it…?” I returned, taking a breath, trying desperately to fumble out my house key from my pocket.
And I closed my eyes. I had to stop. I had to listen.
“What about love…?” I mumbled and felt the process begin, like a machine cranks into action with gears and steam and eventually it is running at such a pace it cannot be stopped in its momentum.
“What you want the most. It is love, no?”
His accent harboured a hint of Russian, he had a small scar over his right eye, I assumed he was someone who had been places and seen things. He was cavalier but assured, a senior marketer. I felt like his team had identified me as a sweet spot and reported my movements and murmurs up to him, through the chain of agency hierarchy.
I was quivering a little, beyond self-control. This was a fight already and I could not grapple my key out, the lanyard attached to it, it was tangled in tissues and change. I was becoming unsettled, unhinged, my anchors dislodged.
“Ah… Come on!? Everyone wants love. You can’t sell me that…” I retorted.
I tried to laugh the situation off, the intensity and ridiculousness of it, but the laugh stuck in my dry throat.
His smile, impossibly, became wider.
“But I can, Sir, I surely can…”
I walked up to him, so we were uncomfortably close. He was, without question, someone who understood violence, so I could not push this too far without making a scene in front of the neighbours.
For a moment I thought he was reaching for a weapon but he pulled out his gleaming phone and poked the screen until a picture appeared. It was a woman. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. It was like a vision conjured from my dreams. Her hair, he clothes, the way she stood, her smile, every detail, every little detail was there. It was as if she had been made, just for me.
“She is here. She is in my car right now. She costs…”
I held up my palm in front of him firmly and said nothing to begin with.
“…And costs,” he continued slowly, “the exact amount of money you have in your holiday savings account…”
“That, is for my holiday…” I said abruptly. I was already losing.
He had snooped through my four bank accounts, that was clear enough, and the holiday savings account was the only one that was truly disposable. I had been saving for a sea voyage across the Adriatic Sea. The self-sailing yacht would be a way to run, going to a place with no need for mirrors or technology or judgements. It had taken a long time to acquire the money but in truth, I had been losing my enthusiasm to travel alone, since my wife had left me.
“This is better than a holiday. This is your perfect woman. Your perfect day,” he said.
“This is prostitution, it’s nothing more than that. Exploitation.”
He put his phone back in his pocket slowly, like he was sheathing a dagger.
“It’s much, much more than that. It’s all the things you have wanted to hear, all the things you had wanted to feel. It will, I promise, be perfect. The way you will be admired, looked at, held. We’ve designed the scenario for one night and one morning to match your exacting needs, from the conversation, the breakfast, the small talk and the gentle, gentle caresses… As I say, perfect. Holidays, what are they really for, what is their value? This is an experience you won’t get anywhere else, a memory of true love, a real vacation from your daily life, that you know you need. We know, and I mean, we really know, you need it, we’ve been learning what you need every day for months. And we have it to sell, but for today only. No shame, all happiness, all real.”
He smiled again, like it punctuated his words.
I let myself peer sideways to his bright red, exceedingly rare classic car, and the passenger side window was down. She was there, her eyes brimming with confidence, looking straight at me, peacefully, calming, with softness and light. She was staring but not in the usual way people stared at me, it was warm, an authentic white smile like the one on the phone image. My heart began to beat faster with adrenaline and my palms began to sweat. I had assumed, since my face was disfigured so completely in the accident, that I would never feel the touch of a partner again, or enjoy a conversation without that penetrating fear they would abandon me at the first opportunity.
What could I do? The only option. I nodded, at first a small nod of defeat and then faster, my head bobbing in confirmation, in acceptance of the deal, as if to scrawl my signature on the dotted line. I wanted what I wanted, and they knew it.
He smirked, waving his meaty hand in the air to beckon her to come over, and the car door opened. I knew this was probably a mistake, and probably just the beginning. They would always be listening.