The place was a dive. Old photographs of famous people who once ate there hung on the walls, but none of the pictures was newer than somewhere in the mid 1970s. Faded wallpaper was starting to peel at the seams. The place smelled somewhere between a campground latrine and the morning after a frat house party.
A man in a trench coat and wearing a fedora — God, could he be any more of a cliche? — slid into the booth opposite him.
“You Slate?” the stranger said, his hands visibly trembling before he folded them to keep them still.
“I suppose so,” Slate said. “And you are —?”
“OK, have it your way, Doesn’t Matter. What’s this about?”
“Have you ever seen a TV show called The Blacklist? FBI teams up with a mysterious crime lord, they end up using each other, and there’s this girl agent —”
“No. Never saw it.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s just, there’s this one episode —”
Slate straightened up. “You called me down here to talk to me about an old TV show? Are you kidding me?”
“It’s not that old, just a few years back —”
“Get to the point. Now.”
“It’s real,” the trembling man said. “This one episode, it’s not just a story, it’s real.”
“Yeah, they do that all the time. ‘Based on a true story.’ I can’t believe I’m wasting my time with this.”
“In this one story, this guy uses DNA to find people who are prone to violence, and then he manipulates their life to trigger them. This one lady shoots up a bank, and another guy goes off on a high-speed chase and pulls a gun on cops after he crashes and —”
“‘Based on a true story,’ huh?”
“He does things like that to manipulate them, screws with their lives until they snap. I watched it on Netflix the other night and wrote down the formula.”
“There’s a formula for turning people into killers,” Slate said flatly.
“Don’t be sarcastic, man, yes, there is,” Doesn’t Matter said, unfolding a piece of paper and pushing it across the table. “Here, take a look.”
The writing was as much of a scrawl as Slate expected, but not as hard to read as he thought it would be.
FIRST PHASE: DISRUPTION OF SCHEDULE, ROUTINE, DAILY LIFE
SECOND PHASE: DESTABILIZE SENSE OF SELF-WORTH
FINAL PHASE WAS TO SEVER THE PRIMARY EMOTIONAL BOND
GET ALL THREE, JACKPOT
“This is the formula?” Slate asked.
“Yeah. Don’t you get it?”
The man pulled a cigarette from a rumpled pack and fiddled with it as if he would pay a million bucks for the courage light it up.
“Come on, look around you,” he said. “Last few months, everybody’s routine has been screwed up. Places closed down, people told to stay home. The new normal is that nothing’s normal. And if you don’t like it, they tell you how stupid you are, dump on your self-esteem, you know?”
Slate snorted. “It’s a big government conspiracy, is it? They want to drive everyone to violence — whoever ‘They’ is. And you dragged me down here to ask me to — what?”
“Haven’t you noticed how crabby people are nowadays?” Doesn’t Matter said, his eyes wide beneath the fedora. “One more push, maybe one after that, and we’re all gonna blow.”
Slate stared across the table.
“You’re right,” the trembling man said, tossing the shredded cigarette onto the floor and rising. “There’s nothing you can do, nothing anyone can do. I don’t know why I called you.”
“Well, I’m glad I could help you get it off your chest.”
The man took off his fedora, withdrew a small pistol from the hat, and shot the television set above the bar. As people scattered, he took four hundred-dollar bills out of his pocket and tossed them on the counter.
“Sorry about the mess,” he said, and walked into the night.
Slate left town the next morning. He was well off the grid, camped out in a safe place, when the serious stuff started happening.
– – –