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April 08, 2024

The Importance of Being Paranoid

By Jerry Seeger

The man at the end of the bar was watching me. Oh, he was a crafty one, I had to give him that, but some times you just know. Whenever I looked down the ripply formica surface of the bar he was looking somewhere else, either at the ball game on the TV over the bar or down into his beer, expressionless, in every way just an ordinary guy killing time in a bar. Too ordinary. It was all just an act, just to hide that he was there for only one reason -- me. He was observing my every twitch and recording it. Of that there was no doubt.

It became a game of cat and mouse, me trying to catch him looking at me while he watched me with unsettling intensity whenever I was looking somewhere else. From where I sat I could look into the mirror behind the bar and see everyone in the place. All except one, that is. The way the angles worked, his reflection was just past the edge of the mirror, so the only way I could monitor him was by looking directly at him. It was a two-way street, of course; he couldn't watch me in the mirror either, but I was sure he had other, more subtle methods. They were a crafty bunch, no doubt about it.

Cameras? It didn't seem likely. It would be difficult to set them up without people noticing, and if they were discovered there'd be physical evidence. This guy wasn't an amateur; there would be nothing in the bar that could be connected to him.

What if he wasn't working alone? Perhaps he was the decoy, the one I was supposed to spot, so I would stop looking for others. I casually surveyed the other faces in the mirror. One by one I eliminated them as suspects. These were people I knew, people I had screened carefully. It was possible one of them had turned on me, but approaching other bar patrons would have been a risky move on the part of the watchers; if they slipped up the cat would be out of the bag. I didn't think they were ready to take a chance like that yet. No, he was working alone, while the others in the bar continued their lives as if nothing unusual was going on.

Unless his accomplice was very, very, small. I hadn't considered that possibility before, and now it sent a chill down my spine. I scanned the room; there were lots of hiding places for someone who was less than six inches tall. What kind of weapon would someone like that carry? Nothing that relied on kinetic energy; the recoil from a gun would send a tiny person flying. No, someone small crawling around in the shadows would be more subtle. Poison. Little darts with just a few molecules of a substance so toxic it would knock a man down in seconds. An itch, a convulsion, and death. Tiny assassins. Why had I not thought of this before?

Needless to say, I watched the movement of the glassware behind the bar with even more care than usual. My stool is located next to the taps and over the sink, so I can watch the progress of glasses from sink to shelf to tap to me. I know the history of every glass on the shelf. If they poisoned all the glassware, say, by contaminating the dish water, they would end up killing the whole bar to get to me. Someday they might be ready for that, but not yet. I hoped. If they were onto me, or rather if they knew just how much I knew about them, they might be willing to sacrifice a handful of innocent lives to keep me quiet.

I spent a frustrating few minutes trying to position my beer glass on the bar in front of me to afford some sort of reflected view of the guy, but pint glasses just aren't built for that. Curved the wrong way. The one time I thought I got a look at him, he was throwing me a big grin in the reflection. I snapped my head up and he was looking somewhere else.

The whole time, it was becoming more obvious that I was at a logistical disadvantage. Pressure was building in my bladder, and I would have to walk right behind the enemy to reach the men's room. I considered leaving, but dammit, this was my bar and I wasn't going to let them chase me off my own turf. What was the point, otherwise? I might as well just sign up with them. I occupied myself considering which of my weapons would be effective against people who were only a few inches tall. I shook my head. I was woefully unprepared for an encounter with an enemy like that.

Eventually, of course, I could no longer deny the call of nature. With a well-practiced motion I slipped my stun gun from its holster and palmed it so it would not show. There would be some explaining to do if I had to use it, but the more subtle items I carried would not be decisive enough in a straight-up confrontation. I checked my own reflection in the bar mirror. Face haggard and unshaven, rings under the eyes from too many sleepless nights, clothes rumpled. I pulled my cap down lower and set my face to give nothing away.

"You all right, Morty?" Sid asked from the stool next to mine.

"Yeah, yeah, Sid, I'm fine. Just a bit buzzed." If my watcher overheard that, he might underestimate me.

"You sure? You look like you did the time you Tasered that guy."

Al poked his head around from the stool past Sid's. "Did he ever press charges?"

"I'm not allowed to discuss it." I rolled my eyes. "Lawyers."

"You ever catch any of those invisible people?" They were having fun at my expense now.

"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "There's no such thing. And if there was, they wouldn't be very useful." A commonly overlooked fact about invisible people: They are blind. Their eyes don't work; light passes straight through their retinas.

My so-called friends weren't done with me. "Maybe there's ghooosts!" He quavered his voice as he stretched out the sound.

I rolled my eyes and sighed. I'd explained this to them before. "Ghosts aren't a threat. What sort of operational objective would a spirit have? What do we have that they could possibly want?" As usual, they didn't take my reasoning seriously. Fine. Let them tell their little spook stories if that kept the real enemies complacent. If ghosts were a threat, it was one I was going to have to leave to the experts.

I didn't make the mistake of mentioning the tiny people; I'd learned my lesson when I brought up my invisibility theorem. Tiny people, though -- they'd make excellent agents. I reviewed my countermeasures; the guns, knives, and other weapons I carried seemed inadequate against this new threat. Maybe some sort of gas bomb was called for, but those are notoriously difficult to control. This was going to require some serious consideration.

My main problem right now, however, was the normal-sized man at the end of the bar, nondescript in every way. My comrades in beer probably hadn't even noticed him at all. I had lost any advantage of surprise, what with my friends blabbing about Tasers, but I still had to pee. I headed for the men's room. As I passed behind the other man he did nothing at all, as if he was completely unaware that I was there. You have to admire a gutsy performance like that. I would be cornered in the john, but there wasn't much I could do about it but make sure my entire arsenal was prepared. If I heard the bathroom door open, I would not stop to determine friend or foe. Any hesitation would mean the end.

I finished my business and washed up, one hand at a time. I faced the rest room door, wondering what might be waiting on the other side. Had they arranged a surprise party for me out there? I kept myself partially concealed as I pulled the door open. No one was lying in wait. The enemy was still sitting right where he had been. He had taken that seat for a reason, though; there was no way I was going to get past him without something happening. Like a gunfighter in the old west, I shook the tension from my arms and shoulders and prepared for the confrontation.

Keeping my gait carefully even, I passed behind the man once more. Once more he gave no sign he was aware of me. Then, when I was almost past him, he said in a quiet voice, "Mr. Taylor."

I jammed the stun gun into his ribs and gave him both electrodes. He twitched briefly, then smiled. We stayed that way, a frozen tableau of hunter and hunted, for what seemed a lifetime. I pulled my hand away from him slowly, while my other drifted to my knife. I didn't pull the blade out, though. I needed to know more about the man I was facing first. I had always known at a gut level that they were out there, and that they were watching me, but it was still a shock to meet one in person. People who meet one of them aren't heard from again.

He nodded, as if reading my mind. "You would have had more success using your position by the taps to spike my drink. That's quite a pharmacy you carry around with you." He lowered his voice, although no one was paying any attention to us. "Mr. Taylor, your highly developed -- and, I must say, charmingly inventive -- paranoia could make you a valuable asset to our organization."

So that was how it was going to be. An offer I couldn't refuse. "How were you watching me? Cameras or tiny people?"

The stranger chuckled and pulled his hair back. I caught a glint of reflected light behind his ear. "Cameras, of a sort. Broad spectrum, wired directly into my occipital lobe. It takes a while to adjust, but I quite literally have eyes in the back of my head. Also on the side, on top, and in my clothing as well."

I stood, stunned, imagining the possibilities. "Why didn't my stun gun work?"

He smiled. "We knew that was one of your preferred defense tools, so I have been wired with gold filaments that shunt the electricity. Your knife and pepper spray would have been similarly ineffective. You are irrational, but you've been getting predictable. We can help you with that."

"You keep saying I'm paranoid, but I was right. You were watching me."

"Ironically, we started watching you after your rather obsessive nature came to our attention." He chuckled softly. "Just because they're out to get you doesn't mean you're not paranoid."

"It doesn't mean I am, either."

"Mr. Taylor, we can give you the tools to put your natural gift to full use. In addition, you are facing a variety of legal situations as a result of your, ah, overzealous caution. We can make it so none of those incidents ever happened."

To be honest, I was still thinking about the eyes. Eyes that could see in all sorts of wavelengths, eyes that could see concealed weapons or wired-up nervous systems that were immune to stun guns. When I got wired I'd have them make my filaments out of an organic conductor so other eyes like mine wouldn't see them. No one was going to catch me off-guard again.

"You are already designing counter-measures, aren't you?" he asked. "That is the skill we wish to harness."

There was only one question left. "Who's 'we'?"

He paused, just to give his words more weight. "You understand the ramifications if I tell you and then you decide not to join?"

I nodded. "We're far past that point already."

"True enough. All right, then. One of my -- our -- employers is a regular here. She saw you zap some poor guy you thought was shadowing you."

"She?" Mentally I began making a list. There were few female regulars in that place.

"You haven't met her," he said. "She is very small."

Originally appeared 2008-03-31

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-04-13
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