“Your time is running up,” said Tina, the Flamingo Plaza manager, in the basement of the restaurant, her twisted lips a pale sparkling pink. Hershia held her cut finger in her palm. Her blood had smeared a customer’s napkin with the slip of a finger condom. The basement was full of cheap decorations. Pink flamingos were stored in a garbage can, faux fronds jutted out from a corner, plastic vases of polyester carnations lined the shelves.
“I’m so sorry,” Hershia said to her manager’s bright blue heels and hid her cut finger in her short waitressing apron. She wasn’t looking at it but she knew that a chunk of dough hung in Tina’s inflated blonde hair. Every morning she was at the restaurant at five am rolling thick sheets of pizza dough, flexing her lean arms and wearing something synthetic. When Hershia arrived at seven this morning, Tina was frantic. Flour was powdered all over the industrial cheese and meat slicer. Hershia made herself as invisible as possible, but cut her finger cleaning the slicer.
When she resurfaced from the basement, Janelle, her only friend at Flamingo Plaza, whispered, “did she drink the blood?” Hershia shushed and ducked into the bathroom. Hershia’s finger seeped a thin stream of red into the cold tap water. She watched it swirl down the drain.
You’ve been reading the wrong books, said the book Hershia Chros was reading on the bus ride home. She pushed the book into her lap, making sure that the pages didn’t fall out, and looked out the window. I’m so done with you cocksuckers! someone from the back of the bus yelled. It was raining, obviously.
“Rent increase next month,” said Jean, Hershia’s neighbor who was always at the door at the same time and smelled of cat litter and easy-bake chicken strips.
“Ya I heard,” said Hershia as she unlocked her mailbox that was jammed full. She sighed and slipped them under her arm as she unlocked the door and climbed up the steps to her small attic suite. She dropped her bags at the top of the stairs and heaved herself towards the respite of her worn velvet couch. She lay across it, her beat black sneakers above her pounding head, and sorted through two unpaid bills, a letter from revenue services, three flyers, and a reminder of the upcoming municipal election. There was one letter, however, that was from an address she did not recognize.
The letter outlined the Harold Finch organization and explained that they wanted to hire her as an Information Research Assistant. The nature of the research was outside her field, which was biology, but she would start whenever she was ready. The pay was much more than she was making at the restaurant, which meant she could keep her apartment. The company offered flexible hours, had a reputable website, and would be conducted entirely over email. Hershia texted Tina to quit and poured herself a glass of Jackson Triggs.
The next morning Hershia shook some grounds into the top of the coffee maker, turned it on, and opened the first email from her new job. It consisted of three links to databases and the key topics of her research: intellectuality, productivity, and information structures. They wanted her to find information on studies or writing, from as many different fields as possible, and summarize them. Hershia opened her attic window and leaned out, letting her thick brown hair move in the wind.
After two weeks of research, Hershia received an invitation to meet the others who worked for the Harold Finch organization. She dressed in all black and arrived 15 minutes late.
They met at an expensive bar that was partially underground with low stone ceilings and dim lights. She recognized the group by their presence at the largest table. The organization consisted of about eighteen people, formally dressed, and in fact quite plain.
She greeted the crowd and sat in the remaining seat next to a woman with long black hair and dark red lips and a man with a suit and two gold earrings. She introduced herself to the woman on her right with small eyes and a long nose, who’s name was Shari, then turned to the man and shook his thick hand. They were both stiff but welcoming. Rurik, the man on the left, offered her a drink menu.
“Before H.F. I worked in advertising, but this suits me better” said Shari with a flick of her wrist. Rurik nodded and said, “In Moscow, there is nothing like H.F.”
Others introduced themselves and asked Hershia polite questions about her own life, how she had enjoyed the first two weeks at H.F, and what she had done before. The man at the head of the table, clad in a grey pin-stripe suit, eventually walked over to where Hershia was sitting and personally introduced himself as Hans Finch, Harold Finch’s nephew. He was obviously in charge and his bald wrinkled skin buffed as if wet under the dim restaurant lights. He was a true crocodile.
At the end of the dinner, people stood and mingled but didn’t move to end the evening. Instead they quietly watched each other. Hershia felt this acutely.
“So, what now?” She asked Rurik.
He glanced at the others, made a long mmm sound from his closed lips, then looked at her and said, “not sure.” Hans drifted towards them.
“Hershia,” he said, bowing his bald head, “if you have the rest of the evening open, we would like to invite you to the office.”
Hershia didn’t know about the office. She hadn’t even been sure if there was an office. And so she agreed and the crowd wrapped themselves in warm coats and strode into the night.
Hershia didn’t pay attention to where exactly the office was. When Rurik announced their arrival and led her through sliding doors holding her arm, she was disoriented. The crowd filled the stairwell as they stormed upwards and chatter funneled up the shaft. The stairs were carpeted in grey and had worn thin from many heels. They went up three flights and entered a hallway that was lined with laminated doors and faux-gold numbers in the thirties.
Hans stopped at thirty-six and turned to Hershia with a drunken grin. His teeth were far apart, exposing uneven gaps, and his bald head was glowing red. He announced: “At last, we’ve arrived!”
All eighteen of the staff funneled into the office. The walls smelled of stale smoke, a stink Hershia thought had disappeared. It was an apartment. There were no desks, nowhere for a secretary to keep a date book, no carefully placed plants, no water dispenser. There was an L-shaped couch along the wall, a large T.V. and a coffee table with three ashtrays and a few dirty napkins.
After a round of drinks were handed out, Hans stood up and tapped a spoon against his bright orange cocktail. The room went quiet and all sat in attention.
“I want to give Hershia a warm welcome!” Everyone clapped, Rurik whistled. Hans turned to Hershia and said, “already you’ve done an outstanding job with us Hershia, we cannot wait for what you have in store for us.”
The following Monday Hershia opened her email to a promotion. As she had done such a good job with her research, it said, they would now like her to write. There was a guideline that listed twenty-six specific points that her writing should achieve. Each bullet point was convoluted. One read: “Assistant to produce extensive informational documents that interact with specific research fields as informed by peer-review scientific and/or theoretic citations, precise inter-textual data collection techniques, or informational products of your own design”. She tediously worked through each one and realized what they wanted her to do. They wanted her to take the research that she had done and compile a series of studies and papers to be published under multiple names and inserted back into various databases. Each paper would appear peer-reviewed, authentic, and most importantly, would discreetly applaud and credit the Harold Finch organization. The instructions were to manufacture false information.
Hershia took herself out for a coffee and sat on a patio. She let the wind push her hair over her face, she felt like a fish in tall underwater weeds. She smoked and thought about words. She thought about information. She went back home and began constructing her first false scientific paper.
The presence of the Harold Finch organization filled the databases. Hershia wrote in depth papers that outlined studies the H.F. organization had funded, she wrote papers that only had a single footnote mentioning them, she wrote papers that referenced other papers she had written under other false names, and she weaved an entire inter-textual community of information studies, of productivity analysis, of environmental intellectuality, of sociology of design, all in various fields. Essentially, anything she could conceive of, all somehow related to H.F. It didn’t matter what she wrote, as long as she wrote a lot of it, as long as it was formatted correctly, as long as a trail weaved H.F. through its pages. She didn’t know how the organization forged peer-review, or how her papers could be cited so many times so quickly, or how her aliases could gain credibility, but she slowly became proud of her work. She began to think of herself as a thick black ink spreading slowly over a blank page.
Other writers began to reference her work and the credible work of the Harold Finch organization began to spread. Hershia had built a foundation and now others were laying the bricks. Established areas of study were filled by H.F research, new realms were invented based on H.F. research. Before long, university courses were taught on topics Hershia had invented. H. F. scholars were well funded and went on to specialize in certain H. F. studies. Since the content had grown exponentially, one could no longer be a mere general expert in the field. Professionals from various fields participated in disseminating the information. The abstract world Hershia had constructed seeped into reality.
The organization rewarded Hershia well. She moved into a new apartment with large heritage windows and went on vacation alone to a quiet beach on the Northern Oregon coastline. Long lines of grey Pacific waves rolled onto the sand, brown seaweed lay in deserted piles, with no one in sight. Overcast clouds hung heavy above her. She laid down a towel and sat watching the sea in a sweater.
On her way back to the car she stopped by a park information board. Welcome to the Oregon coast! “Please enjoy the view from the safety of the grassy area. All sandy areas are prohibited, trespassers will be persecuted by the law.” Hershia looked out onto the long beach. She brushed the sand from her towel. Had there been a toxic spill? The board did not say that the sand was contaminated. She read the sign again and saw: for more information see hf.com.
At the nearest restaurant with Wi-Fi, Hershia pulled up hf.com and searched “sand”. A hundred thousand pages appeared with titles like: “Study Shows Sand is the Planet’s Natural Population Control,” “Castles Made of Sand; a Capitalist Analysis of the Effects of Sand in the 21st Century,” and, “How Science Lied to us About Sand for So Long.” She searched “beaches” in Google and found that every single beach on the West coast had been closed because sand was believed to be dangerous to human health. A young boy named James Adlern had mysteriously died after a day at the beach and they said it must be due to sand poisoning. The news was spreading and the East Coast was about to follow. She followed hyperlinks and references until she found the root: a single reference to a H. F. paper she had written. She did not claim that sand was poisonous in the paper, but rather that sand could contribute to skin cancer since it was often present with the sun in conditions that were deemed to cause skin cancer.
Hershia called Rurik and drove to San Francisco to meet him. He was waiting at the café reading his phone when she arrived.
“Rurik, this thing has got to stop.”
He sighed, put his phone in his pocket. He was amused. He had been waiting for this.
She sat down at the table.
“Because of you,” he leaned forward. He was grinning and hunched over. He paused and then he said, “just sit back.”
On her drive home Hershia stopped at her old restaurant. Janelle came to sit with Hershia on her break.
“How’s life?” Janelle asked.
“It’s pretty good, I’ve got some time off now,” she said.
“Anyone in your life?” she asked as she twirled her hair through her fingers while she chewed on her lip.
“I don’t have much time for dating.”
“That’s a damn shame,” she paused. “I could lend you one of mine.”
“Have you been to the beach lately?” Hershia sipped her beer.
“Are you nuts?” Janelle punched her arm, then stood to pick up some empty glasses off the next table.
Hershia went home and poured herself a glass of wine. She sat in the quiet of her kitchen for a long time. Soon enough she began to rummage through her closet and found some old poster paper, paint, wood, and nails. She loaded up the car and headed back to the Oregon coast.
She parked near the information sign and thought about what clever vanities she could write on it. She left her supplies in the car and walked out onto the beach. She sat in the dangerous sand. She held a thousand particles in her hand, felt them slide through her fingers. Each fragment disappeared into the vastness of the beach. She ran her palm in a circles beside her and began to dig. She pushed away the light dry sand until she reached the dark wet sand below. She carved the walls into curves. She lowered herself into the hole and covered herself with the heavy sand like a slow wave in the night. She was buried to her ears, the only blemish on miles of abandoned beach.
~ * ~ * ~