Author's Note: This short story is a dark comedy. It's probably a little offensive. And Canadian. For those who were at my reading at VCON, this is the full short. Hope you enjoy!
by Kristi Charish
“Espresso, black,” I said, and passed two forty-five, exact change, across the counter. I always stop for coffee on my way down Granville to the Canflix offices. 8:35 am on the dot, every morning. Same time, same place, same people in line, except for two tourists behind me. And even they were predictably variable.
New barista, though, with platinum hair. I spared a quick glance at her outfit beneath the apron. Neo-punk, paired with cheap jewelry, cheaper shoes. Based on her demographic and likely viewing preferences she’d have orange hair by next week. As I left I made a mental note to keep an eye on her hair colour.
Sometimes the when was just as important as the why when it comes to generating algorithms.
I reached the glass Canflix doors at 8:45 am. I crinkled my nose; something stank. Ripe feta, mixed with rotten vegetables. A spill from one of the dumpsters. I’d tell Gloria to send someone out with a hose. Although accurate, ripe feta funk wasn’t the image the good programming folks at Canflix were going for .The last place we wanted accuracy was our image. We’re not that kind of company.
Balancing my coffee, I opened the door and headed in. “Gloria,” I said to the fortyish receptionist sitting at the front desk. Red dress, touched-up roots, more make-up than yesterday,. “Divorce finalized?”
Gloria smiled. “Nice shoes this morning, Mr. Buchanan.”
I waved with the hand holding my half-finished coffee on my way to the elevator. It makes me warm inside when someone notices my shoes. Recognizing patterns of predictable behavior, making someone take notice in a fickle and ever-changing world, it takes serious talent.
I live by one principle; there is always a pattern, even in change. Unique but the same, rolled into one.
Which is my job. I figure out what the hell you’re going to watch. Before you do.
I was looking at my phone when another smell hit me. Roses, mixed with jasmine, a bit of lavender.
“Carol,” I said, keeping a fake smile plastered on my face as my Canadian content nemesis stepped onto the elevator, wearing a pair of red-soled spiked designer heels.
There’s a lot you can predict about a person from their shoes. Do they go for price over quality? Showy, or practical? Brand whore, or did they pick the first pair they found while wrangling a litter of screaming children?
Carol’s footwear told everyone she was a straight-up bitch.
“Bucky,” she said. I gritted my teeth. She knew I hated it when she called me that.
“That promotion should have been mine,” she added.
I didn’t dignify that with a response.
She arched an eyebrow as black and bottomless as her soul. “Seriously? The cold shoulder? A little juvenile, even for you.”
I pondered whether the elevator glass really was shatterproof and from what floor a fall would be lethal. “No, I’m pretending you’re a houseplant. One rodents congregate in after dark, so it smells and occasionally rattles and makes noise as some rat that got left behind on the nightly binge tries to claw its way out.”
The elevator chimed as it reached the programming floor.
Carol bared her teeth and stood in my way. “Even odds you’re out before the end of the week.”
The trick with someone like Carol is to make sure they never, ever know when they get under your skin. I looked back down at my phone and eased my way around her. Before the door closed behind me I tossed my empty coffee cup back inside.
I am never sure if I am supposed to recycle coffee cups, or throw them out. Carol can deal with it. Or not.
Her warning didn’t sit well with me as I headed down the hall of cubicles toward my office. Carol was a lot of things, full of empty threats wasn’t one of them.
More importantly, the betting pool always made sure the odds were accurate. We work with probability. If you can’t muster testing your probability skills in the gambling ring, you really don’t belong.
I reached my secretary’s desk and slapped my hand down on a stack of papers he was busy ignoring. The large bald Slavic man sitting there—a tattoo of an anchor covering most of his shaved head—looked at me.
I think it’s an anchor. I try not to stare.
My personal assistant is named Igor. Yes, I’m aware of the connotations that go with a large Slavic man named Igor sitting at a desk and answering the phone in a deep voice laced with a thick Slavic accent. Trust me, there’s a benefit to tapping into the social zeitgeist that tells you to be slightly terrified of very large tattooed Slavic men named Igor. You’d be surprised how few social engagements and team building exercises I’m roped into.
On top of that, Igor had a quality I valued. Call it Eastern European know-how, but he knew how to get things that other assistants balked at done.
And he knew the value of a good pair of shoes.
“Yes, boss?” he said, gesturing at me with a pen that resembled a shank much more than it did a pen.
“Coffee, Igor.” Another essential skill in a PA is being able to get good coffee. To be honest, I have no idea if Igor could brew a cup of coffee, but he knew where to find it—or who to coerce. Tomatoes, tomahtoes …
“Oh, fuck me.” I wasn’t halfway through my office door before I saw the red folder sitting atop my day planner, like the rash that signaled the coming of the black plague to medieval towns everywhere.
I picked it up, Carol’s words ringing loud and clear. I knew what the folder meant. A completely fucking unpredictable nightmare, that’s what.
“Igor,” I yelled, and waited until he stuck his head into my office. I waved the red folder. “I thought I made it clear, anyone carrying one of these was to be scared the fuck away.” And if they were insistent, I wouldn’t mind if Igor threw them off the twelfth floor.
Or higher. I really need to look up terminal velocity—wouldn’t do to throw a guy out of a building and have him survive.
Igor shrugged, showing me how many fucks he didn’t give. “Left it here overnight.”
“Shit.” I knew someone would eventually figure a way around Igor. I sat down at my desk. Still handling the folder as if it were a plagued rat, I opened it. No sense delaying the discomfort.
As expected, the subject’s viewing choices were carefully graphed against times of day, time spent watching any given show, binge-watching, and most importantly, the success rate of Canflix-generated viewing suggestions against how often the search function was used. Less than thirty percent. It was an affront to my eyes.
I glanced up at Igor’s imposing frame taking up my doorway. Another exceptional trait; Igor never spoke unless it was essential, and then only the minimum number of syllables needed to communicate an idea or emergency. I figure it had to do with his poor command of the English language. Serbian schools only teach the fundamentals. At least when Igor was there.
Or is it Bosnia now? Not that I fucking care.
Igor nodded toward the cubicle hall, “where your career is sent to die” as I call it. I frowned at the three individuals hovering behind a cheap wall, staring at me. Twenty-somethings, blazers paired with t-shirts and jeans, hoping the casual style would hide the cheap origins of their clothes.
“Gloria dropped them off this morning, boss. Interns.” His accent gave the word the distasteful inflection it deserved. He rattled off their names in incomprehensible syllables. Too much talking for Igor too early in the day.
Goddamn it. I glanced down at my shoes. Red Frye boots, brand new, this season. Twelve hundred Canadian a pair. “How could you two screw me this badly?” I whispered to them.
I briefly considered having Igor dispose of the interns, but no, there were witnesses, the ones who had delivered them to my office. “What the hell am I going to do with a gaggle of interns?” I asked Igor.
Igor glanced down at the offensive red folder.
I stared at the interns, then back at my shoes. “Sorry, fellas,” I whispered. “My mistake.”
That’s the other trick to getting where I am. Figuring out how to turn things to my advantage. And if that fails, cheat like hell. I found the off-cream manila folder holding the interns resumes by the phone and perused the first page of each, then tossed them back on the desk.
“Let’s see what they’re made of. Send them in.”
“Do I start the betting pool yet?”
“Naw. Let’s get a look at them first.” Like I said, people who deal with probability for a living take odds very seriously. I sat in my chair and started perusing the red file of death. Time to see what made Miss Penelope Cruza tick, and how the hell she was screwing my algorithms.
I leaned back so I could better peruse the Benetton-worthy interns, all of whom watched me uncomfortably.
“Do you know what it is we do here … Sandy?” I said, settling on a name. I was pretty sure it started with an S and had an A in there somewhere.
The girl frowned. Asian, with a pixie cut that screamed she yearned to be taken seriously. The most competent-looking of the three, and the chip on her shoulder meant she’d work harder to prove herself before calling bullshit.
“Sasha,” she said.
“Not what I asked.” Always important to set expectations in these informative meet-and-greets—just so they know where they stand in the hierarchy.
She pursed her lips. “Providing programming content for the Canadian streaming market—”
“Enh!” I interrupted her with a sound like a claxon. “Wrong. Memorizing the website doesn’t earn you brownie points. Next.” I pointed at the white kid. Black hair, blue eyes, reminded me of a cleaned-up goth. Still had the holes left over from piercings in his nose and left ear. One of the few men I’d ever seen wearing a turtleneck. Nicely chosen, expensive. Probably to cover the tattoos.
“So Rick, Depeche Mode much in college?” I asked him.
He frowned, though it was less of a reaction than the girl. “Richard. Sasha’s not wrong—you do select Canadian content for Canflix, but the big thing you work on is algorithms.”
Richard might actually be worth something. I narrowed my eyes as I checked out his shoes. Doc Martens. Not crappy ones either. Full leather soles.
“Better,” I said. “But that’s still not exactly what we get paid for.”
Intern Number Three. First-generation Sudanese-Canadian. Most stylish of the three. IQ scores so high he made his companions look like dullards. Nondescript features, crew cut … huh. Hard to predict. Interesting. “What about you, Benetton?”
“Miguel. The algorithms are designed to offer preferred viewing suggestions, predicting which shows and movies viewers will want to view next. But the real purpose is to use the resulting data to develop even better algorithms.”
Someone woke up on the right side of the bed this morning. “To what purpose, Miguel?”
“To repurpose and sell as a monetizing tool to predict consumer patterns. Predicting television choices isn’t that much different from predicting what shoes or car you’ll buy next.”
I watched the other two catch on.
“Miguel wins, folks. There are only a few million people in Canada. We don’t come close to breaking even on our streaming subscriptions. Where we do make money is by using them as our own private research database.”
Sasha was frowning. “Isn’t that unethical?”
I looked to her shoes. I’d have to do research, I wasn’t nearly familiar enough with woman’s footwear. “Look, Sonja—”
“Whatever.” I grabbed the remote off my desk and brought up the Canflix homepage, letting it scroll through the offerings attuned to my sensibilities. “Viewing preferences are the greatest predictor of purchasing habits in the twenty-first century. With this,” I gestured at the screen, “I can tell what you’re going to buy before you know you’re going to buy it. I know more about you from your weekend binge-watching than your mother could ever imagine.”
“Isn’t data collected anonymously?” asked Richard, who I could only think of as Gothboy.
“That’s what legal claims, but without credit cards and social media, we couldn’t develop nearly as good algorithms. BTW, lay off the afternoon mochas. Your waistline can only take so many before you can no longer squeeze into skinny jeans.”
Before Richard could respond I added, “Now what does this have to do with the red file here?” I hit the remote again, revealing a woman clad in grey flannel pajamas and curlers, sitting on her couch. A hairless cat in matching pajamas was curled behind her head. A second cat, this one covered with short white fur, was exposing its gut and genitals to the world. “This woman is what we refer to as an outlier.”
Gothboy and Miguel both frowned at the screen. “You’re filming her watching Canflix?” Richard asked. “How meta is that?”
Sasha’s mouth dropped open. “Okay, this is definitely illegal.”
“Vaguely. And not the point. If you don’t want a national conglomerate watching your every move, maybe you should learn a little programming?
“This woman, Penelope Cruza, doesn’t fit any of our algorithms. Three hours a day (five on weekends) of straight streaming over the last month and we are no closer to understanding her viewing preferences than on day one. Seventy percent of what she watches is from a manual search. Do you know what that means?”
“She’s a unicorn?” Richard asked.
Just when I’d started to like Gothboy.
“Look,” Miguel said, zooming in on Penelope. “She’s wearing stuffed unicorn slippers.”
“Is this not bothering either of you?” Sasha asked.
Miguel and Richard looked at her, then me. I raised my hands. “Your intern packets did mention, one of you is guaranteed a salary starting in the low six figures?”
They looked back at Sasha. Shrugged.
“I’m not holding the remote.”
“We’re just interns.”
Sasha shook her head. “Un-fucking-believable.” She wasn’t leaving, though.
“Penelope might not be a unicorn, but you’re on the right track. She is our golden goose. A giant pain-in-the-ass, but a goose nonetheless. Outliers like her pop up every couple months; our job is to figure out why the hell our algorithms aren’t working. Credit cards, email, Facebook—I don’t care how you do it, but you will uncover everything and anything there is to know about Penelope. This flannel-loving woman with a genital-exposing cat is now your life. Clear?”
“Again, by illegally spying on her?” Sasha said.
I looked at Richard and Miguel for defense. Miguel shrugged again. “Maybe you could give the lady free Canflix, or a few rentals or something?”
“I like how you think, Miguel, but it might alter the results.”
Sasha sounded like she was choking. Must have been law before getting this internship. Law students never want to get their hands dirty. Something, illegal, something, jail time …
There was a knock at my door. Igor stuck his tattooed head in. “Phone, Boss.”
I nodded at my new team. “Take shifts, take notes, record her while she’s between shows and making her choices. Test other outlier algorithms against her. Ms. Cruza is your life for the next 48 hours.”
I let them shuffle out before picking up the phone. I recognized the number. “Carol.”
“Bucky. How’s your morning going?”
Carol didn’t laugh. That would be cheap. Carol might be a company whore but she’s anything but cheap.
“Ten thousand dollars and your promotion says your new interns break in twenty-four hours.”
“Make it twenty thousand. And you pick up my dry-cleaning for the next month.”
“You’re on,” she said.
I hung up and mentally went through my shoe closet, deciding what I was going to wear over the next few days. Shoes make the man, and I planned on stacking the odds in my favour.
I’d had a fantastic night’s sleep. My three interns had not. Which was good. Meant they’d been working.
Richard stood and opened his laptop. An image of Penelope in pink flannel pajamas appeared on my wall monitor.
“Our subject, one Penelope Cruza. Twenty-seven, employed as a nurse at the Children’s and Woman’s Hospital. Fond of red wine, flannel pajamas, romance novels, and non-fat extra-hot cappuccinos.” He handed the controller to Miguel.
“She is also partial to cats.” Miguel clicked the mouse, replacing Penelope with her most-recent credit card statement. “As we see, she spends almost thirty percent of her take-home income on cat paraphernalia.” He clicked the image again, replacing it with two pictures of her cats. “For the purposes of this and future presentations, we will call the bald one Penelope Junior, due to the matching pajamas, and this one,” he used the curser to highlight the cat exposing an expansive un-neutered self, “we’ve dubbed Genitalia, because obvious.”
“We think she dresses Penelope Junior in pajamas because it’s a Sphinx,” Sasha said. “It doesn’t have any hair—”
“I know what a Sphinx is. And you’re not telling me anything I don’t know. We used the Crazy Cat Lady algorithms. They didn’t work.”
“We’re getting to that, sir,” Miguel said, and passed the mouse to Sasha.
“We decided to go outside the box, look at Penelope beyond search choices and purchasing history. Miguel handled her email and social media, Richard and I went through her home footage and credit cards.” She focused on a poster on the back wall of Penelope’s living room. “Notice she has a collection of 1980s anime posters, manga comics, and a Good Luck Cat piggy bank.”
I shook my head. “If you’re about to suggest the Egg algorithms, we tried those too. They only increased the hit rate by two percent.”
Sasha frowned. Richard leaned over. “By ‘Egg,’ he means yellow inside, white outside.”
Sasha’s eyes widened. “Am I the only one who finds that incredibly offensive?”
Richard shook his head. “Just accept it, Sasha. He doesn’t care, and Canflix has enough gender parity and racial diversity in the workforce that they’re un-fucking-touchable when it comes to harassment. The government overlooks just about everything he says. Trust me, I looked.” He sounded mad, yet his face read impressed.
“You can’t be serious!”
“He could order you to blow him and no one would raise a finger.”
I smiled as Sasha choked. “You’re not my type.”
Richard took over. “We ran an experiment last night. Instead of offering a single algorithm, we alternated them.”
That got my attention. I sat up straighter, glanced up from my phone at the numbers. They were better—not perfect, but better.
Miguel jumped in. “When she got home and turned on Canflix, we offered her the Crazy Cat Lady algorithms. She didn’t bite. So we asked ourselves; what if Penelope Junior and Genitalia had oversaturated her? Instead of letting her search, we showed her a selection from a second algorithm—”
“Asian cinema,” Sasha said, a little too quickly. It must have been my blank expression because Richard and Miguel both mouthed Egg.
Richard jumped back in. “And as a negative control, we showed her selections from the Jacking-off Papa Smurf algorithm. Still not perfect, but she did select a second-tier option.”
Hunh. Personal selection saturation … did such a thing exist? The point where you get so much of what you want it repulses you? I ran over possibilities in my mind. Considering how we offered people exactly what they wanted, this could be the beginning of a trend—one I wanted to be at the forefront of.
Eat your heart out, Carol.
“I am officially impressed,” I said. “But forty percent isn’t something I can sell to Amazon. Get this higher than seventy, you all receive a ten-grand bonus.”
They looked at each other.
“And Miguel?” He looked back, startled. There was a bit of sweat on his upper lip. “Good work on hacking her email and social media. But I need you to go further. Think TV crushes, who she dreams about. If there’s a fantasy inside her head I want to know about it.”
The drop of sweat grew in size until he finally licked it off. “Yes sir. I won’t let you down.”
I noticed his pupils dilating. Odd. But hey, who am I to judge?
My email chimed. I dismissed the team, looked through my messages. There was one from Carol. Delete. I didn’t want to give her any indication of what I was on to.
I looked up. Richard. Hmm.
“So, Richard, what do you do on weekends?” I asked.
He crossed his arms. “Bands, movies—watch some chick in pajamas surf Canflix with her obscene cat. Seriously, this makes me never want to watch TV again.”
“I suggest reading. Fewer subliminal messages.” I scrolled my phone. More jibes from Carol, which I ignored.
“Sir, can I say something personal and not have you take offense?”
“I think you might actually be evil, sir.”
I smiled. Dress him in a better suit and he wasn’t bad to look at. “Tell me, Richard, what do you think of my shoes?”
Monday morning I was standing in my kitchen after spending a surprisingly entertaining weekend with Richard. Miguel and Sasha had the algorithm another ten percent higher. Things had been looking practically peachy – that is until I turned on the TV to the utter shitstorm that was playing out on national TV.
I clicked through the channels in frustration. “There goes my fucking goose,” I said as Richard walked into my kitchen. “That’s a kindergarten lesson, isn’t it? Don’t gut the golden goose?”
Richard just shook his head.
“I mean, there’s nothing inside! There’s never anything inside! No one in history has ever gutted a golden goose and found a bunch of golden eggs!” Worse, the new algorithm was sitting at only sixty percent. “This is going to fuck my numbers.”
“I don’t think Miguel cared a damn about your numbers.” Richard grabbed the remote from my hand and started to scroll through the news while I refilled my coffee. I didn’t bother watching—I’d seen it all by now. Of all the stupid intern things to do …
I glared at my red Fluevogs, sitting by the door. “This was you, wasn’t it?” I whispered. “It’s payback for not wearing you last week.” They didn’t answer. Vindictive shoes. Fuckers were getting tossed in the fireplace for this.
“They figure this was like a career thing for him. Finding people to study, stalk, obsess over and then…” Richard trailed off. “Amsterdam, Paris, Sweden. Looks like they’re extraditing him to Germany—apparently they’ve got the most evidence there. Three backpackers …”
Now I know why Miguel had spent so much time in Europe over the summer. And why he was so good at hacking social media.
Richard answered his phone and covered the receiver. “The Province, for you.”
“No comment. Wait, give me that.” I grabbed his phone and dropped it in the sink.
Richard shook his head. “Doesn’t this disturb you at all?”
“How was I supposed to know Miguel was a serial killer?” Richard glared at me. “Okay, maybe there were signs, but really? I mean, he’s not exactly the serial killer type.” I didn’t say, Miguel’s the black guy, but wasn’t the serial killer always the white goth? “Now, if someone had told me there was a serial killer hiding amongst my interns …”
“Way to live your life by stereotypes.”
I shrugged. “Stereotypes, statistically backed up patterns of behavior reinforced by TV—What? What I’d say?” I called after Richard as he headed back into the bedroom to finish getting dressed. He already had on one of my extra pairs of designer jeans. His art deco t-shirt would do, he was an intern after all so I didn’t fault him for that. The socks, though. “Grab a pair of my red socks from the bottom drawer in the closet.”
I shrugged. “I’ll lend you my brown Fluevogs,” Not the red ones, they were in the penalty box indefinitely. “It’ll look good.”
“You might be evil,” he said, handing me the remote as he headed for my closet.
“And I’m not gay,” he shouted from my bedroom closet.
That’s what they all say.
I flipped back to the coverage of Sasha. After the Penelope mishap, Miguel’d gone to Sasha for help. He’d probably have done better if he hadn’t shown up with blood all over his shirt and a severed head in his arms. This had caused Sasha to scream and cops to be called. I’d be letting her go after this. I mean come on, if you can’t take one for the team, think through a problem without screaming your head off at a little blood …
Okay, a severed head. I guess I could give her that one.
Still, a demotion to the mailroom was in order.
Thank Christ Miguel hadn’t said anything about Canflix. A trooper to the end. I wondered if I could get him to work from maximum security? They did that, didn’t they? Rights for prisoners and all that? What would be the harm of a little Internet stalking if he was safely behind bars?
“Seriously, not gay,” Richard called from the closet.
Oddly appropriate statement considering where Richard was standing.
My phone pinged with a message. I couldn’t have fucked you better myself.
I frowned at the offensive gif Carol had included, a man bending another over a table with my smiling face photoshopped—you get the picture.
The position didn’t bother me—much; it was their shoes. Like I’d let a guy in Reeboks fuck me over a table. Maybe a bj, but that’s a big maybe.
“They haven’t found Penelope’s head yet,” Richard said. “Wonder where Miguel put it?”
“Sure I don’t know,” I said. That reminded me—I grabbed a burner phone from the bottom of my kitchen drawer and dialed from memory.
“Yes, boss?” Igor said, sounding out of breath.
“I don’t know whether to be happy or disturbed that you know it’s me.”
“A bit of both?”
“How’s project Carol going?”
“It looks pretty incriminating, Boss.”
I heard a commotion in the background. Barking. “Sorry, Boss, got to go. Police are here and they’ve got the dogs out.”
“Run, my terrifying Slavic friend,” I said. I hoped the dogs wouldn’t catch him. Though Igor knew how to deal with them.
I could hear the screaming. Mostly profanities, a few directed at me. I was impressed Carol had managed to reach my floor, what with the police escort and all. She was agile in a pair of last season designer heels.
Richard frowned at me from across my desk. At least he’d worn the shoes I’d given him. “They found a decapitated head at her house?”
I did my best to ignore Carol’s screams. “Bed, actually.”
“Congratulations on your promotion,” he said.
I ignored the tone. “Congratulations on surviving the hiring process. You’ll be helping Igor for the next few weeks. You said you had some new algorithm data, yes?”
Richard pushed the folder across my desk.
“Send the new interns in.” Two this time. I’d decided three was unlucky.
A young woman and man walked in. I scanned their shoes. You can tell so much about someone from their shoes. Not if they’re a serial killer—that was an exception to remember—but you can tell a lot.
I grabbed the remote. “Ok, folks. Welcome to Canflix. Richard already briefed you on what we do. This is your target.” I turned on the screen to reveal Miguel, sitting in his cell, wearing flannel pajamas—I’d sent the pjs as thanks for all his hard work, along with a free Canflix subscription.
“Your job is to find out everything there is to know about Miguel and his TV preferences. Leave no stone unturned.”
I glanced back at the screen. He was in solitary confinement, but just in case …
“Under no circumstances are either of you to kill him.”