Stories

The Best Algo I’ve Ever Seen – Theresa Smith

If it’s cigarettes you’re looking for, Eddie, I’m plumb out. Try the chrome coffin next door. But I don’t say that. I don’t say anything at all. What I do is duck behind the counter and pat around for my revolver. Because if that thing is Eddie Thatcher, I’m Eric fucking Clapton.
Gimme a cigarette, says Eddie.I’m plumb out, says I.

Eddie pats the pocket of his overcoat absently. A beer, then. No. He looks hurt. What’s the problem? I do something wrong?No, Eddie. You’re doing everything right.

That’s what I thought.

I start wiping the counter with my free hand. Just come back when you’re feeling a little more yourself.

He looks confused. What d’ya mean? I feel fine.

You know perfectly well what I mean.

Help me understand, Jake. He places both hands on the bar, palms up, a gesture of supplication. Holy shit, they even got the faded tattoo on the inside of his wrist, the little pale blue smudge. Things aren’t looking good for poor Eddie.

I grip the revolver behind the bar.

Eddie looks up at me, puzzled. Why the hard feelings, Jake? He shakes his head mournfully. After what I did for you yesterday–

So that’s what this is about. They sure move quick. I would too, if I had that kinda money.

I place the gun quietly back on the shelf and pour Eddie a beer, then pour myself a glass of whiskey. A big one.

That’s better, says Eddie, hoisting himself onto a stool. He raises his glass. To us.

Eddie’s becoming a regular. He sits at the bar for hours at a time and tells me long, splendid yarns about the legendary tough faggot cops of Jonor Bahru and Hatian voodoo priests that keep snakes up their asses. He fudges a few details every now and then, but I don’t mind. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve heard all these stories before, of course, but that’s alright. They’re the kind of stories you don’t mind hearing twice.

One strange thing about Eddie. He can toss back four or five without getting the slightest bit tipsy, but then it’s like a switch flips inside his brain and he starts slurring and forgetting and going off on tangents and pulling me close to tell me things about women and cab drivers.

I’ll tell ya something, he’ll slur, pulling my head close to his. I bend down. Women are like cab drivers, ya know. Want ’em to stick around? Don’t pay ’em. Know what I mean? And laugh.

Or, Lawyers are like flies, he’ll mumble. Millions of ’em in the world, but it only takes one to make ya miserable. Know what I mean? And laugh.

Now, he pulls my head close. Lemme tell ya something, he breathes. He pauses. Cops are like parking spots, man. I look at him sorta funny.

Yeah? How so?

I don’t know, he says. And laughs. Sometimes his algo doesn’t work too well.

Eddie’s job is to ask questions and look innocent, and maybe whack heads every once in a while if the conversation gets off track, so his algo is relatively brutal and simple. Info in, questions out. Info in. Whack heads if questions out and info in = 0.

In general, though, his algo is pretty good. My bar’s a few doors down from the police station, so I see good algos, bad algos, new and old algos — the whole fucking rainbow. Sometimes they’re so bad the guy can’t even get his order out — goes into a feedback loop counting his change or stares stupidly at the row of grimy bottles behind my head. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the rummies from the algos. Old algos walk into the side of the building, missing the door by a few inches or even feet, then back up and try it again. So do rummies, but after a few tries, the rummy gives it up and walks away. The algo keeps slamming into the same piece of real estate over and over until I go outside and turn him around and watch him lurch into the street and squint at the traffic coming down the pike, arms and legs and head jumping as he recalibrates. It’s oddly touching.

Eddie and I are getting to be pretty good pals. So one day, when the switch is flipped, I decide to try my luck.

Who do you work for, Eddie? I say, with my back to him, polishing glasses.

I don’t work for nobody, he says. I’m a full grown baby. Work for Eddie.

You’re a free agent. Do as you please. Working for Eddie.

Yeah.

I take a deep breath of bleach and booze. I figured you might want to catch up after what happened–

I hear him put down his glass. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the massive complex of data flophouses, something had spiked, a graph on a screen or a needle on a readout, and someone was paying attention.

I drop the rag on the counter and turn around to face him.

He’s watching me closely. Crunching everything I say, tracking my microexpressions, analyzing my biometrics, splitting the tone and modulation of my voice into millions of tiny data points so he can tell whether I’m lying to him or not. I’m not.

She was the best algo I’ve ever seen, Eddie.

He’s silent. Waiting for me to hang myself.

I couldn’t have stopped her, you know.  Algos like that can get whatever they want.

I study his eyes. Brilliant little orbs snapping around the contours of my face methodically. I keep talking.

I fill up his glass again from the tap on the right. There are two taps behind the bar. One serves beer. The other serves some sort of watery chemical cocktail that looks like beer and smells like used crankcase oil, and this is what Eddie drinks. This is what all the algos drink. They can’t drink booze — it eats right through their piping. Guts them from the inside out. Anyone caught serving booze to an algo is up for manslaughter. Or worse.

She lied, Eddie. She wanted to die.

Eddie’s face suddenly goes blank. Full stop– and he’s back, and now he looks fierce and undone by grief, capable of fast, unthinking violence.

You poured it. You watched her die. You hid it, Eddie. Hid her.

Eddie’s brows shoot up. I did?

No. Not you. Eddie hid her.

I hid her?

Not you. Eddie.

I did her?

Algos are wired to be fast, not smart, unless they’re supposed to be engineers or surgeons or something, and chop-busting algos like Eddie are wired to think on their feet. To gather data and relay it back to a master brain that sorts and collates and analyzes and interprets it. And so this business of “Eddie” being him and not-him is really fucking with his engine. His head is wobbling head from side to side as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing, which is its own unintentional joke, a parody of the wet organic brain’s horror at blundering onto the ugly nudity of  a basic concept like identity. He keeps rubbing his eyebrow with his thumb, which is a tic he uses to stall for time. The skin above his eye is getting red and raw.

Eddie did it. Not you.

You did it, not Eddie.

He’s starting to sweat. But it’s not sweat; it’s a sort of clear oleaginous substance that crawls down his face in little soapy streams. Eddie, he keeps saying, tapping out a discrete rhythm on the countertop as his fingers flutter. Eddie. Eddie.

Finally, he stops. That son of a bitch, he says.

Eddie’s in trouble, isn’t he?

Eddie nods grimly. Oh yes. In trouble.

What are you gonna do with Eddie, Eddie?

Only one thing to do.

He picks up the beer glass and slams it into his face. Blood and oil go everywhere. A jagged hole opens up beneath his cheekbone and he grinds it in again. He’s on the floor now, slamming the shattered butt of the glass into his face over and over, rolling around and screaming as customers jump back from the tables and make for the door or press themselves up against the wall and gawk at Eddie’s bucking, breaking body, annihilating itself in a nest of sparks and jugular spray. The glass is gone and he’s attacking himself with open hands, pulling great gore-streaked worms of wire out of his face and kicking his legs in the hot silence of the bar. A cop lurches through the door, radio bursting to life in a roil of scratches and crackles. He sees what’s on the floor, and stops cold. He peers through the darkness at me.

Is he OK? he asks stupidly, pointing. No one answers.

He takes a step towards Eddie’s husk and stops and looks up at the customers huddled behind their tables, emotionless and whitefaced. He looks back at me

I clear my throat. His name is Eddie Thatcher, I say slowly.

The cop pulls out a thick wad of carbon fiber paper. Eddie Thatcher. He licks a fat finger and starts to page through the creased forms.

I think about Eddie, dead to the world now in the hot dark hum of a data slum, staring at the readout, swallowing hard as the screen goes blank.