Social Engineer - Chapter 11

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Three Weeks Ago

Brody held the door open, allowing Mel to pass into the small lobby of the residential block of flats. She pressed the button to call the lift, which opened immediately.

As they rose to the top floor, Brody asked, “Do we really have to do this?”

“Brody, they are my friends. And Neil will be there. You got on well with ’im last time.”

Was his acting that good? Neil, Joyce’s fiancé, had bored him almost to death the last time they had met. He only had two subjects, both uninteresting: football or animal rights. And worse, tonight Joyce and Neil were hosting a dinner party, with two other activist couples Brody hadn’t previously met. He felt like he was walking into a recruitment fair for fresh new protestors. Brody had never given animal cruelty a second thought before meeting Mel, and still couldn’t find any reason why he should. Surely, their relationship didn’t have to mean they shared each other’s hobbies?

The lift door opened and Joyce was there to welcome them with kisses on both cheeks. She ushered them into her minimalist apartment, all in white except for swashes of colour from large abstract paintings. They were last to arrive. Joyce thrust glasses of Prosecco at them and returned to the kitchen. After shaking hands with Neil, Mel cheerfully introduced him to the other two couples. Brody resolved to stay cheerful and amiably made small talk right up until they made their way over to the large, round glass dining table, where he discovered that the seating arrangement forced each couple to separate. He had been strategically placed between Joyce, whom he knew, and Mary, an American stewardess regularly flying long haul over ‘the pond’ for US Airways.

He made it through the starter by asking Mary inane questions about her life in the air. He made it through the main course answering questions about his life as a location scout. He used up nearly every anecdote in his carefully researched repertoire, all rehearsed and reused many times, many of which were repurposed from stories he’d originally read in film industry magazines or on Internet gossip sites. At one point, the name-dropping of celebrities made him the focus of the whole table, which he began to find uncomfortable.

As Joyce served dessert and the others compared notes about West End shows they’d seen, Mary unsubtly steered the conversation towards the common interest of the seven companions. She turned to him and asked, completely rhetorically, “Brody, did you know that primates experience pain just as humans do?”

“Do they?” For Mel’s sake, he tried to sound interested.

“And did you know how many rhesus monkeys are bred in captivity each year, just to serve the needs of the drug research companies?”

He admitted he didn’t know. She told him. It was a high figure. She went on to explain that rhesus monkeys were a particular favourite because the animal is genetically the closest to humans, even having menstrual cycles and similar hormonal patterns. 

“And did you know that very few of these animals ever get to see the sun? It’s disgusting.”

He agreed it was indeed disgusting.

He controlled the urge to ask how else the drug companies might safely test their medicines before human trials began. He knew from skirting around the subject with Mel that it was a pointless question, with the alternatives ranging from testing on human tissue cultures to statistics and computer models. All far inferior approaches.

Instead, he asked her, “Do you think that protesting outside the gates of the pharma Pharma companies does much to help?”

“We have to! We can’t let them know for a second that we’ve given up.”

“But surely the only thing that would change their practices would be public opinion?”

“Exactly, that’s why we do it.”

“But, if you don’t mind me saying, surely the media needs to cover your protests in order for you to have a chance of influencing the public? Don’t you need to be front page material?”

“You’re right,” Mary admitted. “We’re forever trying to find ways to make what we do newsworthy.”

“And that’s hard?”

“Yes, of course. The cause we’re fighting will never be fixed with a single punch. It’s a long-term strategy. And the problem with that is that the media always need their interesting sound bite. Something new and tangible.”

“Surely there must be an uppercut that would floor the big pharmas?”

“I doubt it. The Holy Grail would be footage from inside one of their research laboratories showing just how badly treated the animals are.”

“Makes sense.”

“But that’s impossible to get. Believe me, we’ve tried. The resources these companies have at their disposal means that this kind of stuff never leaks. They vet every employee thoroughly. We’ve tried getting activists on the inside, but never succeeded. Well, once or twice we’ve got them in but never out with any evidence. Just a verbal account of the cruel things they saw.”

“But then it’s just your word against theirs.”

“Yup.” Mary took a large swig of wine and declared loudly: “They’re bastards! Rich, inhumane, fucking bastards.”

The others halted their conversations at Mary’s emotional outburst. And then they all nodded in agreement and began chiming in with similar viewpoints. Brody sat back in his chair, sipping at his wine, and watched them get it all out. Mel threw occasional sympathetic smiles in his direction, understanding that he was enduring the moment on her behalf. Occasionally, he was asked a question and he nodded or shook his head as required. The debate went on for a good twenty minutes, right through coffee, Brody not saying another word, his strategy to avoid upsetting Mel in front of her friends.

It wasn’t that Brody’s opinion was contrary to theirs. It was just that he didn’t really care one way or the other. Huge global corporations got away with murder, literally and metaphorically, all the time. A handful of protestors were hardly going to make a difference. Didn’t they realise how the world worked? To him, however noble their efforts, it was a complete waste of time and energy.

Later, as Mel and Brody descended in the lift, she turned towards him and, tiptoeing to reach, planted a big kiss on his lips and then hugged him close.

Merci beaucoup,” she whispered.

Relieved to have survived the encounter, Brody hugged her back.

But he vowed never to get himself caught like that again. Nothing was worth suffering that much pointless passion.

“Let’s go back to yours,” Mel suggested, a seductive twinkle in her eyes.

On the other hand . . .

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