Feeding the Demons
a novel by Alex Alvarova (excerpt)
Miami, Florida, 2014
Renata Gallagher was in cheerful mood. For the last year she had been bubbling with energy like a puppy running after a ball.
„Friends,“ she said, rather ceremoniously. „As Mr Kemp’s legal team have informed us that foreign entities are not permitted to take part in election campaigning in the USA, we have had to create a new home-based organization. So join me today in launching our new subsidiary — Challenger Analytics. Also, let me introduce the new vice-chair of the board, Scott Brennan!“
Despite his substantial paunch, Scott somehow still managed to hop up onto the small platform and took the microphone: „Err… I think all of you know me already. I’m sure we’re all going to get along just fine. I’m not one for talk, I demand nothing more than your greatest effort, but I can promise you won’t have much free time, that’s for sure. I won’t accept anything less than victory. We have three years to change the face and anatomy of the conservative electorate, both here in America, and across the world.
Voters who keep the present conservative apparatus in power will be eliminated from the game, banished to the ranks of non-voters. Those who, until now, never voted, because no one cared about them, must take their place. The Grand Old Party must now become the party of the workers, the only way to ignite the revolution, as Trotsky once said. The revolution starts with the workers, and revolution means victory.“
William Sax lent towards the new client services manager:
„I never thought I’d one day be conquering America with Leninist claptrap.“ The manager gave an involuntary snort of laughter, invoking a few sharp looks from those sitting around them.
Everyone except Parviz was there, but he had signed the contract to create a joint company based in the USA prior to the meeting. Miguel Vasquez had decided to stay in London where he was working on another massive project — something called Brexit. Thomas Calendino felt the political wind getting stronger, and formally resigned from the board. Everyone knew he was still on board — he would just no longer figure officially. He signed over his shares to his wife.
Will Sax was hired as executive director for both branches, in Britain and America. Many sleepless hours in the air over the Atlantic awaited. The same was true for Davit Goradze and Timothy Anderson — hours on board planes preparing data for campaigns aimed at Yanks and Brits.
William Sax slapped Scott on the back as he was putting the microphone away: „Fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I’d enter into a pact with the Devil himself if it benefited the revolution. I like your strategy, Scott, a truly innovative approach!“
Initially Scott grinned with satisfaction, but then said almost in a whisper: „I’d enter into a pact with Lenin himself, if it benefited Hell. That’s what the Devil once said, Will. That’s what you were going to add, wasn’t it?“
For a split second William looked at him questioningly, then burst out laughing: „You’re the man. I love this guy! There’s only going to be one outcome with this guy around!“
Renata arrived and looked around at her new acquisitions.
Then she turned to Timothy, and in a shrill voice that was a slightly unbecoming of a mature woman in her forties, exclaimed: „Oh wonderful, I’m so glad to meet you at last. It’s Timothy, isn’t it? So you’re the genius everyone talks about?“
As always, Timothy felt extremely uncomfortable with the attention. Renata had also cuddled up to him to take a selfie. That made him even more awkward. He didn’t like people touching him or when they spoke over each other. Only two people in the company knew about the problems his autism caused him, and of course, there was no way he was going to go around telling just anyone about his issues.
„Pleased to meet you — it’s an honour,“ he mumbled anxiously, his eyes wandering the room, looking for the exit. Renata didn’t seem to notice his unnerved state and chirped on cheerfully: „You know, I’ve heard so much about you. It was yesterday, during my Iyengar yoga class, it occurred to me we really need people of your sort.“ She’d wanted to say homosexuals, but checked herself as the words came out.
„I don’t understand,“ said Timothy coldly, desperately trying to think of a way of escaping, but one that wouldn’t look like it. Scott suddenly noticed his golden-egg-laying goose was in trouble. He jumped down from the podium and approached them.
„What do you mean ‘of my sort’?“ Timothy repeated, a touch more irritated than before. Renata decided to come clean: „Well, you, gays. You’re a talented lot. They say you are a dab hand with technology, early adopters, they call you, don’t they? I’m so glad to have you on the team, Timothy, so glad…“
„You really must excuse us, Renata, I promised I’d get Timothy to our first meeting on time — we really do have a lot of work to do,“ said Scott, grabbing Timothy by the arm and ushering him out of the door. Renata gave a gleaming-white, 30-tooth smile: „Of course, my dear, work must come first!“
Once safely in the taxi, Timothy finally relaxed and smiled gratefully at Scott: „Thanks.“
„That’s OK. I can’t stand parties and public events either,“ said Scott convincingly.
„But you seemed to be in your element, Mr Brennan, I thought you enjoyed all this.“
„Years of practice, my boy, years of practice. I’m Scott, by the way, no more Mr Brennan. I don’t belong to this world, the same way you don’t. I can’t stand these boring old farts.“
Timothy looked him square in the face. He could see he was telling the truth.
* * *
Scott was now working considerably more and sleeping considerably less. And over the course of 2014, Dexter’s ratings went up considerably faster than any time previously. The number of shares on the web exceeded anything analysts had ever witnessed. And that was something Timothy couldn’t help noticing.
„Scott, do you have a minute?“ he asked one afternoon. For the past ten hours he had been poring over tests they’d run to ascertain which of three slogans would catch on best. Close the Borders, Build the Wall! and This Land is Our Land! They had already tested Make America Great Again and the results had been better than they could ever have anticipated. The numbers showed what few had realised until recently — that Scott possessed a sixth sense for how his voters felt about the world.
„I’ve brought up the first set of statistics showing how popular we are on social media sites,“ Timothy began cautiously.
Scott’s face froze: „So what did you find?“
„I don’t understand. Someone out there is giving us a helping hand. That someone has the technology at hand to operate an army of tens of thousands of Twitter bots. I haven’t yet attempted to find out where this is coming from, but I reckon I’d be able to identify who’s running this.“
Scott nodded his head, staring pensively into the middle distance as if delaying comment.
„Hey, did I tell you I read that book you recommended? Really good, gender and feminism is going to be a huge topic.“
„Really? I was hoping it would get you interested. Although, you of all people… There aren’t many people who would come to that conclusion.“
„Yes, really. I’m convinced one day this will have leverage and we should be there when it does. Marketing is all about trends and emotions. Riding the wave, catching the right wind in your sails and allowing yourself to be pulled onwards and upwards. All you have to do is let the genie out of the bottle. Blitzkrieg, buddy — I can feel it in my bones.“
„Who would have thought it? You, an ultraconservative preacher? I just don’t know what to make of you sometimes.“ Timothy shook his head and laughed out loud. Then he remembered that he’d wanted to talk about something else.
„What should we do about these bots — should I nose around a bit?“
„Leave it, Timmy, I already know about them. I probably even know who’s behind them. We have a few influential partners in Silicon Valley, leave it.“
„So it’s all part of the plan, OK… I can live with that.“
„Dead right. Everything’s under control.“
Timothy returned to his text, but he was still wondering whether to chase off the eighty thousand fake Twitter accounts with a bit of analytical software. But he would have to write the programme himself. He decided to forget about it for now.
* * *
Sitting in the foyer of a small Texas hotel, Scott was onto his second whiskey, Grigory was sipping a camomile tea.
„You’re working too hard,“ announced Grigory.
„Tell me something new,“ retorted Scott and ordered a third shot.
„And drinking too much. Why did you stop that exercise regime you were telling me about? It was doing you good, wasn’t it?“
„This is what does me good, cheers!“ said Scott, grinning. But Grigory was in no mood for jokes. He could see Scott’s red cheeks, the dilated veins on his nose and his bloodshot eyes. He was concerned.
„We’re gonna need you for another two years. The most important work is still to come. You shouldn’t wear yourself out.“
„Don’t worry,“ snapped Scott.
Grigory decided to change the subject. „How long ago did Timothy notice our Twitter bots?“
„Must be two weeks now. He says he hasn’t done any complex analysis on them, and I have no reason not to believe him. I told him to let it be. He’ll just think they are being run from Silicon Valley.“
„He won’t,“ said Grigory sharply. „Our people think that with his talent he’ll get to the source straightaway. Goradze is our man and he was right about Timothy. This game of hide and seek can’t last for long. With these numbers of bots we can’t keep our identity a secret for long. Many of them are operated from within Russia. He’s bound to find out sooner or later.“
„Who are you aiming them at?“
„Those groups you suggested. But sooner or later we’re gonna need more precise data. Republican electoral databases, ideally health records, banking details and much more besides. Let’s just pray that boy leaves well alone. I wouldn’t like to have to eliminate him.“
„Jesus, don’t even think about it… The whole thing stands and falls on him. Goradze simply can’t do it on his own. We’re not even halfway through the project. So far we only have those fun psychological tests. We send them out across the web like mad and, strangely enough, people seem to enjoy them. Reveals so much about them. But it’s not enough. We need a helping hand, but Facebook — they’re big fish. They not going to give us anything just like that.“
„Well, if that’s what you think…“ said Grigory with an enigmatic smile. „Have Timothy put together a list of things you want, just in case. Better to be ahead of the game… Oh, yeah, Scott, I’ve brought you a small gift — it’s waiting for you in your car.“
When Grigory left, Scott noticed there was a woman sitting in his car, a Pamela Anderson double, only from the way she was dressed she was obviously no lifeguard. Tight-fitting stars-and-stripes shorts and thigh-high leather boots. Scott whistled in admiration.
„My name’s Valerie and I just love taking a shower with my clothed on,“ said the girl and unzipped her leather coat. All she had underneath was a white, virtually transparent, body-hugging T-shirt.
* * *
Next day Grigory’s phone rang. It was Zhenya.
„So, how did it go? Valerie said he wasn’t up to much?“ she asked, getting straight to the point.
Grigory’s voice trembled with anger. „Zilch. Apparently all he wanted to do was chat about French literature. The bastard. He knows I’m watching him. This guy will drive me nuts. I’ll probably kill him well before he drinks himself to an early grave.“
„Calm down, my love. There isn’t a male on this earth who doesn’t have some weak spot or other. We’ll find it, don’t you worry. Patience is a virtue. I get them all in the end. Didn’t you mention he was a Catholic?“
„He is. So what?“ he snapped in exasperation.
„Send me a photo of his mother. Would be good to know if he had any religious images on the walls back home, the Virgin Mary, that sort of thing, you know what I mean, dear.“
Grigory nodded in agreement. But this sort of cold-blooded approach was way beyond his comprehension.
„OK, I will. You’re so patient — I wanted to throw in the towel.“
Zhenya laughed. „It’s not the first time, or the last, that I’ve had to pull you out of a fix. Have to go, ciao, mon amour. Big event in London tonight, and I’m delivering goods.“
She hung up. Grigory imagined what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of all this, and felt rather sickened for a moment. But only for a short moment. The hunter may sometimes feel sorry for his catch, but never lowers his gun.
Translated from the Czech by Marc Di Duca
(the novel was published in 2020 in the Czech Publishing House Albatros and the author is looking for a publisher of the newly finished English translation)