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The following article appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Technology Review.

We arrived by rental car and parked next to a delivery van in the lot closest to the freeway on-ramp. The van hid us from the security cam atop a nearby light pole. We were early, traffic being lighter than expected. As we waited, we touched up our disguises. At 09:55, we left the car singly and proceeded to our target site by separate mall entrances. I rode the escalators to the food court on the third level, while G, C, and B quickly reconned the lower floors, where shops were just opening their grates.

I started at the burger stand and ordered a breakfast sandwich. The girl behind the counter was pretty, mid-20s, talking on her cell. She snapped it shut and asked, without making eye contact, if I wanted something to drink with that. She looked as if she’d been crying. I said no thanks, and she rang up and assembled my order. As she did so, I ticked off the mental checklist we had memorized: slurring of speech–negative; loss of balance or coördination–negative. About two dozen data points in all.

When my receipt printed out, she tore it off with a deft flick of her wrist and glanced up at me. Apparently that was all it took, because she said, “I’m only working here to kill my mother.”

I made no reply, as per instructions, and fresh tears welled in her eyes. “Oh, it’s true!” she declared. “I’m a spiteful daughter who only lives to torment her mother. I admit it! I have a freakin’ master’s degree in marketing from NYU, and I was a founding owner of Toodle-Do.biz. I practically ran Toodle-Do from my bedroom. Sixteen hours a day! But did she care? No! She was all, ‘Why don’t you find a real job?’ She couldn’t even comprehend what Toodle-Do was. I mean, I could tie her to a chair and put a fucking laptop in her fucking lap and use her own finger to point at the screen, and still she can’t see it. I mean, what do I have to do?”

Once she was rolling, the young woman’s confession built up momentum and volume, and her coworkers glanced nervously at us. “I’ll tell you what I did! I sold my shares in Toodle-Do and took the most demeaning, most mindless ‘real job’ I could find!” She gestured to take in the whole burger stand. “See that?” She pointed at the deep-fat fryers, where a pimply boy was racking baskets of fries. “I stand next to boiling grease all day. When I go home, I don’t even have to open my mouth. No way! It’s in my hair. It’s in my clothes. It’s in my skin.” She raised both wrists to her nose and inhaled. “I smell like a freakin’ exhaust fan, and it drives her mad! Oh, it pushes her right over the edge! My grandmother died of a stroke when she was only in her 50s, and every night I pray to God to give my mother one too!”

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Credit: Istvan Banyai

Tagged: Communications

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