Leaning back onto the office door, signed contract in hand, Aaron listened to the client clodding his way down the stairs, feet falling heavy and arrhythmic. He crossed to the window and watched the client step out onto the street. The kids on the stoops eyed the client like prey in a nature documentary, but, languid with the heat, they let him pass. Before the client turned the corner off Argyle, one of the kids shouted something, likely profane, in Vietnamese at him, but it was clear the kid’s heart wasn’t in it.
Since opening Death Information Services three years before, Aaron had become skilled at handling the dead. In the days and months following a person’s death, their ghost wandered the Internet restless and lost. Their profiles haunted InterEm and Holler. Their old blog posts, ownerless and authorless now, manifested in search results like unquiet spirits rattling tables and guiding planchettes. Without Aaron’s guidance, many of these ghosts would never find peace. He tidied up their corpses, removing unsightly files and browser histories. He protected their loved ones from the bedeviling digital echoes of them. He whispered to them in code and laid them to rest. But in all that time, he’d never gotten any better at dealing with clients while they were still alive.
He counted himself lucky to have bagged this client and made a promise to himself to do better next time. Resolved, he placed Harry Lime’s paperwork into a manila folder, marking it Lime, Harry. The transposition of first and last names marked the reduction of the potential, a sweating, twitching and stuttering lump of humanness, into a client, a file folder full of passwords and demands, and the tiny world of secrets and embarrassments Aaron would be required to enter when it came time to execute the client’s contract.
Unlocking the file cabinet, Aaron considered the impregnable security it represented. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is physicality. All promises of digital security took the form of physical representation: padlocks and walls, in the same way descriptions of bodily pain tended towards the inflicting instrument. But a hammering headache was nothing like the reality of a hammer to the head and a real lock trumped its own pixelated image.
He placed Lime, Harry under L and slid the drawer shut. With a key no bigger than a quarter, he locked it back up: Lime, Harry’s secrets hidden away from the world along with everyone else in Aaron’s preemptive book of the dead. At least everyone between H and N.
Aaron’s thoughts were interrupted by a chirruping from the fax machine in the corner of the office, the one networked to Mavet’s server.
One more soul claimed by the Angel of Death.
“Baruch dayan emet,” Aaron muttered as he rose from the chair. For the past four years, the fax machine had been the only true judge Aaron could comprehend. One of the first programs he’d ever written, Mavet was never wrong. The program had started as a joke. In high school, Aaron had devised a search protocol that could trawl the Internet constantly for certain criteria, alone or in combination. Eric would realize and capitalize on the practical applications of this, mostly in allowing people to perpetually search for mentions of themselves, and a version of Mavet, renamed Mirror Mirror, would become one of the premium services InterEm offered its users. But when he came up with it, Aaron decided the best use would be to enter in a massive roster of B-list celebrity names and have Mavet search for news of their deaths. Mavet would then cue a messenger program, called Yophiel, to send out a mass email, notifying people. The idea of thousands of strangers receiving an email informing them that Buffalo Bob Smith or Harry Caray had died struck a teenage Aaron as the height of comedy. Years later, with most of his programs stolen from him, he still had Mavet. With a little tweaking, the program was the kernel from which DIS grew.
Aaron picked the paper out of the tray. The letters were tiny on the vast white of the page.
Jaime Martinez, Mavet informed him.
And all the air went out of the room.