Blogbox | Fiction

2028 Noir

By - 16.02.2018

Put on 3D glasses now to enhance your experience.

I’d never had qualms about my job until he walked into my office.

“I need your help,” he said. “I’ve been going in circles for seven months, and time is running out. They tell me you are the kind of girl who gets the job done. The best, they tell me.”

For a travel agent, I’ve never been outside of Kosovo. Don’t get me wrong. I love travel. That’s why I work in this industry. But I’ve never been able to afford it. Not many people can nowadays.

But this is not what I tell my clients. As far as they’re concerned, I am the most traveled Kosovar woman since the European Confederation instituted the Safety and Travel Act of 2025. My boss always likes to point out that it not only saved our industry in Kosovo, but gave it a tremendous boost. Business has never been better. That doesn’t mean that people get to travel though. In fact, the less they can travel, the more money we make.

Who needs travel, anyway. All you need nowadays is a decent virtual reality package, and you can visit any place in the world that your heart desires. No waiting in lines. No worries about visas and documents. No bad weather. No problems with waiters or bad service. Just you, your cozy couch, maybe some warm tea, and your pair of AR/VR goggles.

I lowered my goggles, like a librarian from the time when we used to read physical books. We all have our sales tactics and this was one of mine. I looked at him peeking from over the goggle frames, and said:

“Well, it’s your lucky day, sir. You’re at the right place. How can I help?”

“I have to travel, you see. To the EC,” he said. “I need a visa to enter the Confederation, of course. I thought I had enough time. I figured if I started preparing the paperwork early, I’d have everything ready by now. But, I’ve been misled.”

“Sorry to say it, but there are many crooks in this town. You should be more careful.”

Somehow, I sensed he was going to be trouble. It could have been his old age, reeking of death and traditions long abandoned. Perhaps it was the tone of his pleading voice, vulnerable and weak. Or maybe it was that look of desperation he carried on his face as if he forgot to put on his breathing mask when he decided to cross the whole of Prishtina on foot. If my sense of smell hadn’t been so damaged in my childhood from all that pollution, then I would have felt his body evaporate our “autochthonous” toxic fumes.

Perhaps it was the way he looked that got to me. A simple brown sweater, gray pants and a dark blue coat. Not even one brand name item on him. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve dismissed him there and then, not even bothering to waste my time. But I know better.

“They lied to me,” he said. “The others. I paid whatever they asked for. They said it would work. We had enough time, they said. But nothing. No results. It’s supposed to be the trip of my life and now I—”

Before he even finished his sentence, my goggles had already run a background check on him. No social apps. No staged selfies. No listed interests. No cyber presence whatsoever. He was a ghost. There was a photo of him, but no filters or effects. Who even posts natural pictures these days? He was going to be trouble, I thought. But, there’s all kind of eccentric folk. Behind that fashionless façade, there could be a money-hog, a whale flush with cash. All I had to do was take some time to find out.

Perhaps he could be the one, I thought. I desperately needed a big sale — the premium expedited package. I thought about the money and why I needed it: Think of your family. Think of the big picture. What do you see? Yes, that’s it. Get ready to be ruthless. No mercy until you achieve your goals. Focus. Breathe. Exhale. You’ve got this, I thought.

All I had to do was convince him. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ my boss always says. These oldtimers don’t come up too often. They’re a dying breed. But if you manage to reel them in just right, they will always happily spend their stashed away old money.

“But how rude of me,” I said, and began the usual spiel that I give my clients. “What kind of a travel agent would I be if I don’t even give you a tour of our little agency. Let me show you around.”

“Huh?” I caught him off guard and a bit confused, but at least I made him stop talking.

“Let’s get you something to drink,” I said as I gently wrapped my arm around his, like a niece would with her old uncle. “A coffee perhaps.”

And so I began to give him the tour of the place. I showed him through large halls made of glass, timber, and concrete, intentionally designed to evoke a sense of luxury that would appeal to the Kosovars’ latest architecture taste, which was anything that would give the feel of the European Confederation.

I soon led him to our greatest scam since (and please forgive my Freedom Baby humor) the invention of those “Freedom! Democracy! Independence!” slogans we all learnt in history class — free coffee. But not just any kind of coffee. The gourmet stuff. Real and organic. Without additives that mask, modify, and simulate the taste for an entire populace whose taste buds have been chemically burnt from years of breathing toxic fumes.

Granted, our café does look more like a lab than a place where you can brew a cup of Turkish, but hey, I try to work with what I’ve got. Plus these oldtimers enjoy things done the old way; ‘when coffee used to be coffee,’ as my boss likes to say.

“Is this the genuine, true—” he asked.

“Yes, it is. Not many places where you can find it nowadays.” I knew he was going to fall for the old school coffee.

As I waited for the Oldtimer to drink his brew, he got excited and again began to ramble about the reason for his wish to travel.

“And so, as I told you, the discovery is a true triumph for Kosovo scientists,” he said. “This is the first time anyone from Kosovo will receive such an award. And so this travel—”

Bla-Bla-Bla, I thought, big deal. It’s not like you’re the only person who’s into science, I thought. For a country with the lowest highschool PISA scores, we had the highest per capita number of advanced scientific degrees.

But the truth was, I was a bit envious. He had touched on a sour note. I had two masters degrees and a PhD under my belt. And I was working on my second PhD. But at the time I had hit a hitch in the road. I still didn’t have the money to pay the fee to the thesis writing service.

Focus, I thought. Once I make this big sale and the Oldtimer buys into the “premium expedited package,” I get the big commission. I’ll be able to pay the thesis fee and I will get my degree. I’ll finally have access to better jobs. And bye bye long hard hours. Breathe, I thought. You’ve got this. You just want to do good by your family. That’s all. Business is business. A sale is a sale. No right or wrong way to do it, as long as you do it.

“And so, you see,” the Oldtimer continued as I nodded and smiled, “that’s why it’s important to travel there in person.”

As he talked about the reason for his travel and reiterated his difficulties in obtaining his visa, I began to zone out. This was all unnecessary information, there was one and only solution — the so called “premium expedited fee” — but the clients for some reason always insist on giving me detailed explanations about their lives, about their desire to travel, and all the other plights and failed attempts that ultimately led them to me.

In those instances I just keep nodding and occasionally give a mild smile. Sometimes I pretend that I’m taking notes via my goggles, but in reality I’m bored out of my mind, and instead just surf the feed for the news.

That day, like every day, it was just the usual drivel, rehashed from journalism bots’ algorithms. The Northern Enclave again threatened an independence referendum. This caused a slight drop in local cryptocurrency values because of the uncertainty about the future and stability of their mining operations, located widely in the north.

The Republican Armed Forces had purchased a new contingent of surveillance drones, and were accused by the opposition of breaching their constitutional mandate in the process since the drones could easily be weaponized. Leftist protesters had once again taken to the streets demanding improved workers’ rights. The protest had turned violent, and the Central Business Consortium had accused them of trying to sabotage the economy and also called them “welfare leeches wanting to live off the sweat of others.”

The Ticker, the number on the monument commemorating the number of countries recognizing the Republic of Kosovo, had now officially been stuck for exactly three years. As were health care reforms and gender equality, as well as the issue with the demarcation of internet borders after the UN instituted the “Advanced Net Neutrality Resolution.” “We won’t release our IP’s” the local hacker resistance had declared.

The National Opera and Ballet building had been sold off to creditors for lack of payments and debts accrued during its construction. A human interest piece explored the rise of a new class. “The Rich, the Educated, and the Famous: the Story of the Aristocracy of the Liberation,” read the title. It promised to explore the privileged lives of sons, daughters, cousins, and descendants of Kosovo politicians. It seemed too long, and unlikely I’d read it.

“My trip here was (almost) worth it just for the coffee,” the Oldtimer finally said as he drank the last sip by raising the cup so high I was afraid he would dislocate his wrinkly neck.

His face now glowed with contentment and satisfaction. Time for phase two of my sales tactics. I took him to our VR suites for some “show and tell.” Time to add some cyber flare to that tactile and tasteful coffee experience.

The large hall was filled with rows of comfortable armchairs separated by semi-private cubicles. They say this used to be some sort of a sports facility, as in, they used to play games here, physically. Long before my time. I hear, when our company bought the building, it had fallen into such disrepair and neglect that they initially thought of destroying it completely. They thought it would better serve as an underground parking space.

But, a little bit of remodeling can do wonders, especially when you manage to buy public assets for a fraction of the price they’re worth. That’s the rumor, at least. (Probably for the better; this way politicians can still campaign with promises of grand plans for the underground parking.)

“Marvelous, just marvelous,” said the Oldtimer. “They remind me of airplane seats. The first class ones.”

“Have you tried it?”

“Of course. I flew quite a bit in my day. Although, I never got to try those extra roomy first class seats we used to see only in ads.”

“I meant the virtual travel,” I said. “It’s against my interest to say so, but it may be a better deal for you. It will feel almost as if you’re there in person. And it’s cheaper. And no need for visas.” I began to administer a dose of reverse psychology. He was biting the hook. Now all I had to do was reel him in slowly.

“It’s not the same,” he said.

“How about I give you a free trial. Here, let’s try this one. I’ll play you my favorite tour. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Check it out.” This was indeed my favorite virtual tour. Every day, after work, before returning home, I decompress here choosing the “no visitors” option.

Together with the Oldtimer we walked the halls of MET. We headed straight for the sculpture garden. Sunlight pierced through the large windows and glass roof. Shadows stretched and crisscrossed the large hall. People walked past and through us. And the Oldtimer kept repeating “Marvelous, just marvelous. Just how I remember it. Only better.”

For a moment my eyes caught a face that resembled that of the Oldtimer’s. It was Carpeaux’s sculpture “Ugolino and his sons.” I knew it well. As much a fan of travel can know without traveling. I did my first PhD on Dante’s “Inferno,” and the images of Ugolino devouring his own children is still fresh in my mind. I mean, you eventually learn a thing or two, even if you use the thesis writing service.

But maybe that was not such a good thing. I now began to associate Ugolino with the Oldtimer. Must’ve been because of the face. I began to wonder if what I was doing was, how should I put it, honorable. Was I swindling the Oldtimer out of his money? Would his family be paying his debts for centuries to come? Is the Oldtimer, unknowingly, devouring his own children?

“Oh, that’s enough for me,” said the Oldtimer, saving me from my own thoughts in the nick of time as he removed his goggles. “I get nauseous with these things. Any more would just make my headaches worse. But it was marvelous. Marvelous.”

We were soon back at my desk, and began to talk business. His only real solution was to go with our “premium expedited package.” Of course, the downside was that it cost a fortune and a half. Now was the critical part. I had to be careful and delicate about how I approached it.

“Oh, but I don’t have that kind of money at hand,” said the Oldtimer.

I was a bit afraid, truth be told. Although years of experience have taught me well not to show it. What if I had assumed wrong, I thought. What if I had miscalculated the Old Fart? What if he doesn’t own property or lands or stocks? What if he came without a cent in his pocket?

But I was in too deep now. I’d gone too far and invested too much time and effort and energy to give up now, so close to the end. I wasn’t going to let this sale fail because of a technicality like insufficient funds. The sale is happening today, I told myself, money or no money.

“We can always go with virtual travel,” I said.

“No. I told you. This is too important. It has to be real.”

“True. You can’t let this kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity get away,” I said. “We must find a way.”

“How?” He was biting again, and I began to reel him back closer.

“Let’s see if I can pull some strings. I have a very good friend at the TBC. She owes me a favor.” I saw a glint of hope in his eyes and I continued. “This will only take a moment.”

I put my goggles back on and made some dramatic hand gestures, the more expressive, the better it generally works with the Oldtimers. Naturally I had already had him and all of his wealth assessed and appraised via my goggles in those very first minutes of our conversation. The loan had been approved all along.  

The Turkish Business Conglomerate, or TBC, already owned half of Kosovo; one more poor soul would not make a difference, I thought. TBC held the monopoly in some of the key business sectors in Kosovo — from banking, airtravel, roads and infrastructure, electricity, internet, healthcare, as well as food import and production. Between TBC and the Union of Family Corporations, UFC, they had reached a sort of business equilibrium, and since they technically owned anything that could be owned in the entirety of Kosovo, including our own travel agency, it was becoming ever-difficult to get a loan. Good thing the Oldtimer had some prime real estate he planned to leave his children.

“Good news,” I said triumphantly. “I was able to secure a loan for you. We got lucky. It’s now or never.”

“What about the rates? The interest? The repayment?” He began to panic, like a fish that realizes that it will be out of the water soon. “I’m not sure about it. I survived this long without ever having gotten a loan—”

I didn’t blame his reluctance. With the amount of money we’re discussing here, he could have just as well invested the money in the Trepca Cryptocurrency Mining Corporation, and probably doubled the amount in a year. And despite its market volatility, it would’ve been half as risky. But hey, I’m not getting paid to be a financial advisor.

“It’s the standard rate,” I said. “Same as all the other people in Kosovo. Can an entire nation be so wrong?” Of course they can, I thought. But I was not going to say that to the person whom I was trying to get hooked up on credit. “What should I tell them? It’s now or never.”

“Let’s do it.”

The procedure was finished within seconds. And thanks to our “premium expedited package” the Oldtimer got his approved visa documents in hand before he could even redoubt the loan. He could now travel right away if he chose to. I could almost imagine him by the big windows at the TBC Airport, puffing whatever smokes from back in his days, looking at the sunset like some retired outlaw.

So excited was he that he expressed his wishes to invoke Amendment 7 of Kosovo’s Constitution — the Right to Celebrate with Arms. And so I made one last call for him, to the police this time, and notified them of a planned ceremonial discharge of a firearm between 3:15 p.m. and 3:25 p.m., direction facing West by Southwest, by the EuroTours headquarters in Prishtina. Our agency was happy to take care of the fee. We pride ourselves on our attention to detail and customer care.

By the time I heard the gunshots from outside my office, I was already taking my break. I was relaxing with my favorite virtual travel tour, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I was back in the sculpture garden. As I walked, my eyes fell on the statue of “Ugolino and his sons.”

The wrinkles on Ugolino’s forehead again made him look like the Oldtimer. I watched his crooked mouth and lips. How he was biting his fingers. How his elbows rested by the head of his younger son. The pleading expression on the face of one of his older sons as he put his arms around his father’s legs. And finally, his feet one atop another, fingers uneasily interlocking as if remorseful.

I wondered if I’d pushed a man to condemn his entire family? Of course I did. But then, he did it all to himself. It was ultimately his own decision. He was determined to travel at all cost. And all I did was make his wishes come true.

By the time I heard the last celebratory gunshot outside my office, I had already turned back to my old self. But I was afraid for what I’d just felt. I’d almost lost it. Lost focus on what’s important, on why I do what I do. I almost put someone else’s interest before that of my family. I almost turned into one of those damn idealists that infect your thoughts with notions of caring about childish things like country, flag, society, other people.

Damn you Oldtimer. If the founding parents of the Republic would’ve wanted that kind of society, they would’ve acted as such. Bless them and thank gods; they made it as clear as can be short of spelling it “follow your self-interest.” Damn you Oldtimer. I’d never had qualms about my job until you walked into my office. And that’s what scared me.

Feature image: “Ugolino and his sons.” Creative commons / Illustration: Atdhe Mulla

All photos Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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