Death at Panera
(A spoof and homage to Murakami and 1Q84)
Sunil Maulik, (c)2016
Evangeline walked the short distance to her car on wobbly heels. She nonchalantly tried to wipe the blood off her scarf, convinced that everyone was staring at her. A bead of sweat ran down her neck as she struggled uncharacteristically with her car keys. As she pulled out of the parking-lot of the Panera Bread restaurant in Mountain View she could hear the screams of the waitress echoing through the empty building.
The day had started well. As was her custom, Evangeline had begun the day with forty-five minutes of yoga, taken an ice-cold shower, and downed a bowl of muesli and Greek yogurt. She scanned the manila envelope on the kitchen table a final time, and held it gingerly in her hands as she left her Sunnyvale apartment, the contents now memorized. As she slipped behind the wheel of her sleek German coupe, her skirt hitched over her knees and came to rest on her thighs. She drove rapidly up the El Camino Real, making a mental promise to herself that she should stop taking charity-cases like this one. Cecilia had told her that he was “small-fry” but as far as Evangeline was concerned, the risks were the same, and the penalty if she were to get caught would put her in jail for the rest of her life.
His name was Armando, and he had built and sold two companies before “retiring” to become an Angel investor in the Valley. What this really meant was that he was now able to exploit the young, the gullible and the naïve. And there were a lot of them flocking into the Valley. First-time entrepreneurs existed by the fistful, and while those who were female were fewer (and attractive females far fewer still), any who arrived in Silicon Valley hoping to win a slice of the lottery became fair game for a certain breed of older, single, wealthy and (inevitably) white males. This group of never-married men, paunchy playboys who had done well enough to afford decent homes in Palo Alto, typically met women at startup networking events where they would promise them funding for their ventures, in return for the benefits of their charms. The Stanford graduate school of business was known as a particularly rich hunting-ground for these leeches, providing as it did an almost inexhaustible supply of young, smart, attractive and ambitious young women. Evangeline knew this better than most, having spent a year at the GBS before deciding to drop out to follow her unusual career path. It had been extraordinarily competitive to gain admittance, and her foster family had thought she was crazy to leave, but it was something that she knew she had to do. When Evangeline had first met her mentor Cecilia at a Stanford reception she had no idea that their chance meeting would take her in such an unexpected direction.
It had started cordially, chilly even, but the two women had quickly grown to like each other. Cecilia’s no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is attitude was refreshing to Evangeline, accustomed as she was to the relentless positive psychology of her Stanford sorority sisters. The older woman’s stories of her time in Latin America, the obstacles and challenges she’d faced as a young woman lawyer, and the assumptions people made about her solely as a consequence of her illustrious father’s aura, had led her to become comfortable in her own skin, an attribute she now worked hard to share with young women such as Evangeline. Evangeline was pleased by this, and by their conversations, which had quickly grown more intimate and personal as the older woman freely revealed herself to her young charge. Cecilia had never been married (although she has been engaged to an Indian man at one stage), but she had numerous friends, male and female, married and single, of various age-groups. Over time, Cecilia expanded the circle and invited Evangeline to join a group of young women she mentored on a regular basis in her Mill Valley home. Evangeline felt a certain kinship with these people, and at the monthly retreats, as she had gotten a chance to get to know several of them, it became apparent that Cecilia has major plans for them. Over a period of time, they were introduced to a series of mentors who would teach them how to navigate the tricky waters of the corporate world. At first the conversations had been informal, banal even, but as Evangeline continued her ‘study’ under the groups’ tutelage, the tone of the conversations turned dramatic. The topics became darker, with lectures on discrimination, gender-bias, power-struggles and the like. Over time, even these seemed mild compared to the topics of sex-trafficking, prostitution and even child pornography, that became topics of intense discussion about morality, the limits of law, and the constraints of the powerless, along with detailed evidence of the actors involved, and their persuasive influence in Silicon Valley. Evangeline had not realized in her short time since moving to the Bay Area that these issues even existed, but the detailed dossiers that had been presented to her and the others quickly convinced her. At first, she had felt it all to be a bit melodramatic, but after about six months of regular discourses, she started to see the ulterior motive behind the old dowager’s exhortations. She and the other young women at the retreats, all smart, all intelligent, all attractive, were being prepared for a role that Cecilia and her group of intimates clearly had had in mind for them long before they had first been recruited.
When Cecilia sat them down in front of the fireplace one Saturday evening and told them the real reason she had invested so much time with them, none of them was completely surprised. It was clear that the old dowager had her own ax to grind with the perverted society she felt the Valley had become, and she knew she had the wealth and resources to do something about it. But the extent to which she wanted these young women to fulfil her desires shocked even Evangeline. Perhaps Cecilia had known more about her then she had guessed; certainly the idea of extra-judicial revenge on men who were exploiting women in numerous ways, both legally and illegally, had crossed her own mind on occasion, but she had never dreamed that she would actually meet someone who had the resources, expertise and desire to make these revenge fantasies actually occur in real-life. Once Cecilia was finished with her explanation of what she wanted the women to accomplish, a long, low silence filled the room. Eventually one of the women spoke up:
“And what happens if we are captured, or if we fail at our task, then what?”
“Why, we will get one of the other girls to kill you, of course.”
The matter-of-fact way in which Cecilia issued her directive sent a chill down Evangeline’s spine. She started to realize she was in over her head, alone in this huge house, and the chilly camaraderie that has existed between the young women suddenly vanished. She could sense the others looking around the room at each other, wondering who would have the will to kill, and whom they themselves might have to go after. It was a dog-eat-dog world, and it really didn’t matter whether it was in the corporate world or at a retreat like this one. That night, Evangeline was unable to sleep. Her mind raced back and forth between the new future that had presented itself and the past, her childhood interrupted by the sudden death of her parents, her status as an orphan, the terrible things she had experienced during her time in foster care, her life after she finally settled down with an older foster family in a small southern California town. She had loved her childhood life and her parents, truly loved them both, and it made no sense to her why her life had been so upended. But now, lying on her futon (she has moved it off the bed and onto the hardwood floor, as was her wont), her fate started becoming apparent. The trauma, the isolation, the move to Silicon Valley after she had graduated from college, all seemed like stepping stones bringing her towards her initial encounter with Cecilia.
As she walked into the Panera bread in Mountain View, she scanned the room quickly to see if she could spot Armando. The photographs in the Manila folder had been crisp and clear. There he was, sitting by the window, a half-eaten chicken sandwich on the plate in front of him. She could tell he was nervous. The restaurant was almost completely empty, and she knew she would need to come up with a system quickly. She decided she would use method-b, her old standby, given the urgency of the situation. Armando had spotted her, and was half-rising from his seat, his eyes glued to her breasts, as he extended a chubby, hairy palm towards her. She shook it gingerly, sat down in front of him, and introduced herself.
“I’m Crystal” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Crystal. The agency said you’d be a looker, and you certainly are!”
“Did you bring the money?”
“Of course! Down to business so quickly! My-my.”
“Can you give it to me please?”
He slid a thick envelope over to her. She scanned the contents and estimated that there was the requisite $2000 inside it., She slipped it into her purse.
“You do know my requirements, don’t you dear?” She could almost hear the drool coming out of his mouth.
“Yes. Bondage, S&M, whipping, rough-sex. You won’t be the first.”
He smiled. She could tell it had been a while.
“Shall we leave?” he said.
She leaned forward over the table so that he would get a good view of her breasts. “Why don’t you finish your sandwich first? You’re going to need all your energy, big boy.”
He had started climbing out of his seat, but now he sat back down, temporarily deflated. He looked down at the sandwich. She knew his greed would prevent him from leaving before he finished it. He looked up at her again.
“Can I get you something?”
She seized the moment. “I’d like a double-espresso and a whole-wheat bagel, please.” She knew it would take some time to get the order from the somnambulent staff. As he reluctantly headed towards the counter Evangeline seized her moment. She reached down into her bra and fished out the plastic bag containing the razor blades, each broken into small ingestible fragments. She lifted up the bread of the sandwich and sprinkled the sharpened fragments over and under the chicken. By the time he returned the sandwich looked as it had before.
He sat down, handed her a number, and took a huge bite of his sandwich. As she suspected, he barely chewed on it before swallowing it down. She could tell he seemed confused by the experience but it didn’t stop him from taking another huge bite. A worried look came across his eyes and he rushed to drink down the accompanying orange-juice. He looked at her, eyes bulging, lips quavering, not a word emanating from his mouth.
“Cat got your tongue?” Evangeline inquired.
In response, he grabbed at this throat and started making gurgling noises. No one could see them in the empty restaurant. He started pointing at his neck and waving from side to side, a ten-cent mime at a three-ring circus.
She tossed the contents of the Manila folder in front of him. Incriminating photographs spilled out showed him in a variety of compromising positions with young women, each subjugated to a variety of shocking acts.
“Say goodbye to your world, you filthy pig!”
He was spitting up blood now, and a few drops splashed on Evangeline’s scarf. He waved his arms comically, a conductor without an orchestra. Evangeline got up to leave.
“Enjoy the sandwich!” she shouted out to him as she strode out the door.