Chapter 1: Mirror in a Library
Panting raggedly, I bounced my vision around the corner and down the endless aisle of steel shelves. Were the Grips still after me? Seeing nothing, I leaned on my thighs to catch my breath. "Be smart. Be careful. Stay free until tomorrow," I thought.
At last, glancing up, I laughed. Only the government would waste money on something like this in the deepest, darkest, least-used place. Some OSHA inspector must have come around this corner once and tripped head-on into a librarian pushing a cart of Russian novels. Crash! Suddenly there was bleak, monolithic tragedy sprawled across this ugly carpeting. And the next week saw a $200 safety-mirror here, handy as Braille light-switch instructions.
I straightened my reflection's ruffled collar. It occurred to me that I looked like Tom Cruise in Collateral: the dirty, expensive suit, friendly face, goatee. And we shared that name. I winced at the gray in my goatee. Soon I would be that guy in every nightclub who's one step behind in dance-moves and one step ahead in creepiness. Maybe it was time to reinvent myself. "Besides," I thought, rubbing my bristled chin, "you know it's harder to influence women with this."
Suddenly I saw reflected movement at the end of the aisle. The door to the stairwell swung open, paused, and a striking woman took the basement. She wore black leather mini-heels, a white blouse, and fine, black stockings that chased her legs into the folds of a dangerous skirt.
The skirt wasn't the End-of-the-World by flat-earth standards, or maybe even street-corner crackpots'; it just stopped slightly above the knee. But to someone of my sensibilities, "above-the-knee" meant "begging-for-mischief". And, seeing no other mischief at hand, I decided to oblige her.
I was probably safe by now. But even if the situation boomeranged, her table, far from the door, would allow me to fade quickly into the sea of lonely words. As I mashed the carpeting between us, I started the familiar routine: letting go of my concerns and beginning to drink her in.
Exerting Influence isn't what you'd expect. It's not a magic power granted by some trinket, or ancient book, or bottled genie. And it's not some electromagnetic wave, nanotechnology, pheromone, or spinning screen-saver developed by a spurned genius. It does rely on some suggestive ideas akin to hypnosis, NLP, or subliminals, yet the state is never a trance.
It's really just exceptionally well-honed empathy. You've probably noticed, if you're smart and you pay attention, that you sometimes have an epiphanic flash of how someone feels: apprehensive yet amused, cheerful yet weary, foolish but vicious. If you work at that, consummately, you get better: feeling leading to nudging.
Maybe you've even tasted it. Maybe you were that teenager who bickered endlessly with her parents, savoring every drop of their misery. Or maybe you were in the relationship that existed only to feed itself into ever tighter circles of provocation and madness. If so, you've caught a taste of this power, in the same way perhaps that vomiting is catching a taste of delicacy. I haven't noticed how far beyond such vandalism the average person can go. But I do know there are a few of us who have gone far enough that a government, or something worse, has noticed us.
She sat alone. I saw that the blouse cloaking her perfect form was slightly diaphanous, cloudy layers inviting lingering attention as I forced my eyes upward. Above, her lips formed a gently smiling cupid's bow. Both eyebrows and cheeks were high and fine. Her eyes studied the shelved books across from her. Framing these exquisite features was shoulder-length auburn hair caught in a ponytail by a length of gray felt.
She didn't notice me approach. "Hello," I said, sunshine in every letter.
She looked up, smiled briefly, extended her hand, and said, "Hello."
A thousand unconscious bits radiated from her in that moment, to which I had struggled to grow sensitive, then lived to grow accustomed. I immediately knew that like me she had had a good childhood, free from harm; that she loved her parents; that she was calm, focused, and untroubled. She was outgoing and helpful, warm and receptive. She probably had a pet, and was the dog type. Her outstretched hand told me she had no boyfriend and wanted to get to know me further. All of this came instantly, years of experience digesting and responding.
I enclosed her hand with both of mine as I shook it. I smiled fondly until my cheeks creased slightly. Everyone likes someone who reflects their best qualities. Hers were sociability and compassion. And now they were mine too.
I sat down across from her and began drawing my net. Her name was Elise. I normally hide my own needs when I'm working on someone, because you must seem confident and uninterested in yourself to build equity with healthy people, especially women. But I couldn't resist appealing to her compassion by dropping hints. Soon, the library seemed dreary to Elise compared to my captivating peril. I put my arm around her shoulder as she got up to take me home.
Then, far away, I heard the door bang into the wall. Running forward to look through some open shelves, I saw two Grips ooze in. It wasn't the same ones that had spotted me at the Hall of Records and chased me here, but you can always tell Grips: they wear fedoras and homburgs that interfere with Influence. One stopped in the open doorway. The other moved out to flank the floor: ever crude yet ever thorough.
Turning to Elise, I whispered, "It's them."
Concern clouded her eyes. "Can we get around them?" she asked.
"I don't think so. One's at the door," I explained.
She bit her lip. "Can you sneak to the door?" she asked. "I have an idea," she twinkled, hiking up her skirt.
I kissed her hand, said, "Wow," and disappeared into Victorian fiction.
Finally, creeping along some Joyce, I got within a few feet of the door. After a minute, the Grip at the door let out a low whistle and walked off. I caught the door just in time for it to slam my fingers. (!) Sprinting up the stairs, I exited to the parking lot. I caught Elise a minute later. I worried if we were separated too long too early, I would lose my hold.
The danger had aroused her. She exhilarated in a quick exposition as we walked to her car.
"That guy sure got an eyeful of something," I said at last, surveying her stockinged legs and putting my arm around her again.
"Ha! His eyes were too wide to fill," she said, and then, more softly, "but maybe I can fill yours."
"Better for you to say than me," I observed.
She looked confused for a second, then giggled and punched me on the arm.
We ate drive-thru sushi on the way to her place. I tried to steer the conversation away from the library, but finally she couldn't be distracted further.
"Do you own them money, Tom?" she asked.
Her sincerity and goodness begged more honesty from me than usual. "No. No, they work for the government..." I said trailing off.
"You're a criminal, aren't you?" she accused. She could spiral out if I wasn't careful. I should have lied, but I was tired from too many close calls. I needed to rein her in.
"Elise, I have some talents. They want me to join them. Don't ask more," I answered crisply, pouring the last of my reserves into credibility and paternal authority.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, flushing.
To change the subject, I asked what she did.
She flicked down the noisy heater. "I'm an investigative paralegal," she answered.
"Do all paralegals dress so sexy?" I asked.
"I... I don't normally. I just felt like it. I'm doing a lot of strange things today," she said absently, turning to look at me.
"One more shouldn't hurt," I replied slyly, patting her knee.
With one foot in the door of her apartment, Elise was tackled in pounce-licks by some furry ball of love.
"Sammy, this is Tom," she introduced.
"What is he?" I asked.
"A fox terrier," she said, rubbing her nose against his.
"Of course," I laughed. Sammy and I were on the same page.
We took a quick trip down to the park for him. I just held her hand and lobbed softball questions; that's the easiest way to coast when I'm almost tapped out.
A moment of silence fell when we got back. Digging deep, I said, "God Elise. You're breathtaking." This was no lie.
She paused for a moment, unreadable. Damn, had I screwed that up? Then she beamed a huge smile and threw her arms around me. "I can't help myself," she whispered girlishly in my ear, "Please stay."
Her breasts pressed against me as I ran a hand up her back. "Of course," I answered.
Arousal reinvigorated me. I scooped her up and carried her to the bedroom, revealing a small museum of terrier souvenirs. I shooed the wagging one out and instructed Elise to lose her blouse.
Turning back to the bed, I drank in the sight of her arrested in undress -- head to one side, blouse over her shoulders, bra invitingly exposed -- a journey as beautiful as any destination. I planted my cold fingers on her stomach and ran them up her body. She started and shivered. We unzipped her skirt. I tugged it and her stockings off. I pushed her back and sat down.
"Use me," she breathed.
I grasped her knee and gazed into her eyes. "Like an object?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"Like a possession?" I asked. She nodded. "A plaything? A tool? A toy? A tramp?" I continued. With each word, I glided my fingernails gently up the inside of her naked thigh.
She murmured softly and pulled down her bra. I cupped a breast with one palm. A nipple...