What if on-line reviewers had actual, real-world power?
He had faced the Republican Guard in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS and al-Qaeda in other far-off hellholes under the guise of “protecting America’s interests abroad,” but nothing filled him with the visceral terror like the skinny, pinch-faced woman with the pixie cut. She came into his restaurant with a spindly, squirrely guy he assumed was her boyfriend. Worse, not only did the woman look like a raging bitch, but she had one of those stupid orange badges pinned to her blouse.
Staring at that badge, Lt. Col. Arthur P. “Artie” Burton wanted to vomit. He knew what that meant: She was a Super Shouter, a top-tier reviewer from the website Shout.com. The last week had been hell for Artie’s wine bar, Veritas Estate. Its on-line ranking had taken a beating. He could not afford one more bad review.
The restaurant had been busy for Alexandria’s annual restaurant week, but there had been events beyond Artie’s control that threatened to bring down everything. First, the wi-fi had gone down, forcing his beleaguered staff to keep track of tickets by hand, forcing Artie to dig up an ancient credit card carbon copy swiper. His staff had weathered that storm with aplomb, but it did lead to slower service than Artie liked.
Worse had been the scheduling snafu that resulted in Artie being down two servers last Saturday. On the one hand, one of the two who did show up was Pauline. She was Artie’s all-star, and worth three of the other transient jokers who came and went through V.E.’s ranks. On the other, the second server had been Kyle. He was a nice kid, handsome and hard-working, but incredibly inexperienced about all things wine. And he had a tendency to let himself get overwhelmed.
Poor Kyle had been given the upstairs dining room on Artie’s assumption that it would be less busy than downstairs. A sudden afternoon downpour destroyed that idea, leading to a massive influx of customers, and Kyle was just woefully unequipped to give each customer the attention they deserved as he ran around like the proverbial headless chicken. Yes, he’d managed to get everyone seated, take their orders, and not screw up who got what, but the service itself had been lousy, and he’d been a sweaty mess besides.
And then the one and two star reviews started pouring in on Shout: “Nice atmosphere, but crappy service.” “Who was that blonde kid who knew nothing about wine?” “My tasting flight was marred by a disgusting, sweat-soaked buffoon who under-poured and knew nothing about what he was giving us.” “At least the wine was good. Our server? Not so much?” And on and on they went.
Many customers had demanded refunds, forcing Artie (who had been forced to take some tables himself) to sit and chat with each and every one, explaining the scheduling screw up and the travails of being new business owner. The people understood. Most of them. There was an off-duty cop wearing an orange badge like the short-haired woman who gave Artie an endless ration of grief after Artie comped his meal and gave him and his wife a free bottle of wine.
That guy didn’t understand. That guy was just a dick. “Absolute power,” and all that. Some people just couldn’t handle power and the responsibility that came with it. Think being a cop is hard, you fat bastard? Artie thought as he smiled and nodded, letting the guy dress him down in front of all the other customers. Try trudging through the desert with fifty pounds of gear on your back, knowing that one wrong decision means ten of your men never seeing their families again.
Artie never liked the taste of ass, yet there he had sat, forced to kiss maximum quantities in public. And to top it off, the ex-cop Super Shouter had given Veritas Estate a one-star rating. One star! Yet Artie didn’t fail to note he slurped down every last drop of wine and practically licked his plate clean.
That guy had been an exception, thankfully. The people like that Artie took the time to sit with them. He was very charismatic in his earnest, bespectacled, square-jawed Father Knows Best way. But he was scared shitless. No matter his efforts to mitigate the damage, no matter how understanding the customers had been, even the other Super Shouters, his excellent four-star rating had slowly decreased to three-and-a-half, and then three stars, and now two . . .
Tora Bora? Taking Baghdad? Artie would gladly do both again if it meant erasing those bad reviews.
He’d let Kyle go, of course. Somehow, Artie kept his cool as he fired the kid, remaining stoic as Kyle fought back tears. He’d wanted to tell him that grown men didn’t cry in public, but though twenty-five years old, Kyle was hardly a grown man.
To get through the remainder of restaurant week, Artie offered his remaining staff double pay. All he had to do was survive the onslaught of Super Shouters—some of whom had given good reviews prior to The Kyle Incident—and he’d be okay.
Shout had emerged quite handily as the world’s preeminent review website. Every kind of business was on it, from retail stores and chain restaurants to brothels and sex doll manufacturers, and yes, even humble start-up wine bars like Veritas Estates. It was a great business model for Shout’s founders—users provided the content, and all Shout had to do was provide the sliver of advertising revenue that came with being a “Super Shouter.”
Of course, what Super Shouters really liked was that sense of unearned superiority and massive power that came with knowing their words and opinions could be used to terrorize business owners into treating them just right.
When they came into Veritas Estates with those fucking badges, Artie very nearly got flashbacks to his days fighting jihadists half a world away.
That was a lie. Jihadists at least had a moral code. The Super Shouters were just plain evil. They demanded perfection, a standard that even the best restauranteurs would have been unable to provide. One particularly pompous Super Shouter had written: “Everything was enjoyable, from the Burgundy style pinot noir (the sommelier here is fantastic) to my coq au vin. The lardons were a little tough, and the chicken not quite as juicy as I prefer (I’m a very picky eater). Also, my knife had a slight soap stain, which is unacceptable. Two stars.”
Two stars! These people were either insane or just plain demonic. Maybe both.
No more bad reviews, Artie told himself all day, like a mantra. Saturday turned into Sunday, and Sunday to Monday, and Monday afternoon turned into Monday night, the end of restaurant week. It was almost over. Artie had almost survived . . . and then to his horror the short-haired Super Shouter darkened his door.
It wasn’t fair to base people on their looks. Sometimes you could be dead wrong. Physiognomy wasn’t real, after all. But Artie couldn’t ignore the knot of unease in his gut, sitting there like a tumor.
One more bad review would kill him, and his business. Shout had empowered its Super Shouters to the degree where they could make or break an establishment. Literally.
Like he was engaging the enemy, Artie shifted into battle mode. He swept in before his hostess Sandra could get a word in, cutting in front of her station and holding his arms wide. “Welcome! Come on in! It’s a great night for a drink, isn’t it?” He feared he came across more nervy than suave, but he could tell this customer would require a personal touch.
“Uh huh,” said the women. She not only looked cunty, but sounded it too. Her creepy little boyfriend, with his long nose, balding hair, and circular John Lennon specs, just nodded with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“So where can I seat you two lovebirds?” said Artie, suppressing a wince at his own words. Stupid. Nervous and stupid.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “This is only our second date,” she said.
“I didn’t get lucky on the first,” said the man, following up his words with a staccato “huh-huh,” like Beavis. Or was it Butt-Head?
“If everything goes well tonight, maybe you will,” the woman shot back, though she still looked and sounded utterly miserable. She must have what Artie’s daughters called “resting bitch face,” and what Artie’s generation more accurately called “being a cunt.”
“Well, you came to the right place!” said Artie. He grabbed two menus from the metal wireframe basket hanging off the wall and bid them follow through the tall tables in the front room and past the bar out towards the back patio. Veritas Estate was built in one of King Street’s old colonial-era buildings near the Potomac, and Artie had converted it into a slightly funky though still upscale wine bar that reminded him of the places he’d seen in Paris during his first trip twenty-five years ago.
The patio was a bonus.
In all the best reviews on Shout, the patio had been specifically cited as one of Veritas Estate’s biggest selling point. Not the fine selection of Virginia wines, not chef Leon’s exceptionally modern, modified French comfort food cuisine, and certainly not owner Artie Burton’s infectious enthusiasm. No, the enclosed patio with its fire pit and tasteful lighting (designed by Artie’s oldest daughter Kayla) is what put the nascent restaurant on the map. And on King Street, you needed every advantage you could get.
It was a gamble setting this place up. Artie hadn’t had much after his divorce, but he’d poured into building up his dream business. And miracle of miracles, he almost immediately started to turn a profit. It was amazing how much wine the middle aged ladies of the D.C. suburbs drank!
“The right place, huh?” said the woman. “Will it get me drunk?”
“If that’s what you want, as long as you drive responsibly,” said Artie. He held up two fingers at Ken, his sommelier behind the bar, to give him two waters. Ken, a silver fox with the encyclopedic knowledge of wine, nodded back. They’d only been working together a year but had already developed their own secret code. It was like being back in the service, only with verbal bullets aimed his way instead of real ones. Before Artie had gotten to the far end of the bar, Ken already had two glasses of water waiting for him.
“I don’t drive,” said the woman, still unsmiling, following Artie out the door and on to the patio.
That didn’t stop Artie from smiling back at the agelastic shrew. “Then drink as much as you want. And I don’t mean this water.” He stopped at a table under a slender plane tree. “How is this?”
“Well, I like it,” said the man, looking at his date with adoring eyes.
“I am not going to deal with leaves falling into my wine,” said the woman. “Put us by the fire pit.”
Artie nodded. It was a warm night, but the fire pit was always a cozy attraction. “Of course,” he said, pulling out two chairs for them. “And you’re in luck—you’ve got the pit to yourselves. Feel free to use these other empty chairs as tables.”
The woman sat and dismissed Artie with a wave of her fingers, like shooing away a fly. “Two glasses of whatever California pinot you have.”
Rage surged, threatening Artie’s brittle nerves, but he kept his cool. Long hours of not opening fire on the disgusting child molesters in Afghanistan he’d been ordered to ignore, and indeed protect, did wonders for one’s patience. Nothing like going to sleep to the delicate sounds of a young boy being sodomized to make you appreciate the service you were rendering to Uncle Sam. Artie wanted to laugh until he cried when anybody thanked him for their freedom. Do you know what I did? I helped keep pedophiles in power . . . on your dime! Enjoy the opiates! “We serve Virginia wines,” said Artie. “I’m sure we can find—”
The Super Shouter continued her dismissive hand wave. “Sure. Okay. Just get us the wine.”
Artie nodded and walked away, fearing that if he spoke he would instantly regret his words.
“Ken, two bottles of Riverview pinot noir to the fire pit, and please explain every last detail about the favor profile.” He was sweating now, his body burning with an internal source of heat strong enough to make the stars jealous.
“You got it boss,” said Ken. He gave the two middle-aged beauties he’d been serving bar his million megawatt smile. “Excuse me, ladies. Duty calls.” They tittered and told him to come back soon.
Artie had to smile. The old bastard made out like a bandit. No wonder he was such a hard worker. “Don’t worry, Ken!” Artie called after his master sommelier. “I’ll keep them warm for you.” The look on the women’s faces was enough to dispel the tight knot deep in Artie’s core. Almost.
At least these women laughed at Artie’s joke. Senses of humor were incredibly underrated these days. Joking and flirting with them helped ease a little of Artie’s tension. Maybe, if things went well, Ken would share one of them with him after they closed?
Ken came back inside after fifteen minutes with an empty bottle of pinot. “All yours boss,” he said, smiling. He held up the bottle and gave it a shake before sticking it in the recycling bin. “Fast drinkers always leave the best tips. I think they’re ready to order.”
“Okay. Thanks Ken!” Artie turned to the women. “I told you he’d be back. Now if you’ll excuse me, Laura and Felicia, duty calls.” He gave each woman a squeeze of the fingers, enjoying the coquettish way they batted their eyes at him, and marched back outside to meet the enemy.
“You!” said the woman the second Artie walked through the door.
Artie put a hand on his chest. “Moi?”
The woman snapped her fingers. “I’ve been waiting to order for fifteen minutes. Where’s your server?”
“Ah, I’m your server. I just thought fine folk like you would appreciate our sommelier giving you the rundown on a new bottle of wine.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m hungry.” The Super Shouter turned to her date. “What do you want?”
“Oh, I think I’ll have the Portobello burger . . .”
The woman shook her head before turning to Artie and regarding him with her cold, grey eyes. “He’ll have the Nicoise salad, hold the anchovies.”
“Sounds lovely,” said the smiling idiot. He adjusted his glasses with a long, slender finger that gave Artie the creeps.
“I’m having the steamed mussels with the Provençal sauce.” In the fire pit’s glow, the woman’s face took on an extra dimension of angular harshness, as though she’d been the model for some Picasso portrait, Dora Maar, maybe.
“Alrighty!’ said Artie. He took the proffered menus and tucked them under his arm. “I’ll put your order right in and get you some bread and—”
“I’m allergic to gluten,” the woman snapped. “And I don’t eat carbs anyway. Neither does he.”
“Oh, I hate the stuff,” said the man. “Huh-huh.”
“Water it is!” said Artie, beating a hasty retreat.
Inside, Laura and Felicia were paying their bills. “Bye Ken, by Artie!” they said, giggling like a couple of school girls as they tottered in their high heels towards the door. Artie admired their asses, loving that his generation of fifty somethings still took damn good care of themselves . . . and were mostly divorcees like him.
“Got their numbers,” Ken muttered. He winked at Artie. “I’ll stick around, help you clean, and we can leave together.”
Artie nodded as he stepped around the bar and poured himself a calming glass of merlot. It was from Temple Vineyards, out in Hume. The tannins were a perfect complement to his mood. “Deal,” said Artie. He looked out the patio door where the Super Shouter’s orange pin shone like a beacon, taunting him. God damn you Kyle! he thought, though he didn’t know if he should be mad at Kyle or at Jorge, who’d screwed up the schedule in the first place.
“Don’t let them worry you, boss,” said Ken, wiping a wine glass with a cloth. “You got this.”
“Sure,” said Artie. The restaurant was moderately busy, the staff all humming like a finely tuned machine. It was only a few hours until closing and this hellish week would be over.
“They didn’t seem so bad,” said Ken.
“Hah! You think?”
Ken shrugged and continued wiping his glass. He nodded and smiled at a young couple who came in to take a look around before leaving, promising that they’d stop by tomorrow for lunch. “Nothing a little wine can’t fix.”
“It’d take a lot more than wine to fix her. She’s so mean, Ken. Why does she have to be like that?”
Pauline, walking amidst the tables, stopped at the bar and leaned forward until both her long blonde hair and impressive cleavage were dangerously close to touching the beautifully laminated ash. “Who has to be like what?”
“No one,” said Artie, forcing a smile. Pauline had been working double-time all week. She didn’t need to take on Artie’s burdens along with her own.
“Super Shouter out yonder,” said Ken. He jerked his thumb towards the patio door.
A frown marred Pauline’s heart-shaped face. “Not another one.”
“Afraid so,” said Ken.
“Remember that last review we got?” asked Pauline.
Artie exhaled in a huff. “Which one?”
“The one criticizing us—well, you, really—for not hiring any people of color here?”
“That’s bullshit! That’s—” Artie moderated his tone when he saw a few diners turn towards him. How many of them would make a note of his filthy language in their Shout reviews? Stupid Shout. “That’s because no people of color have applied to work here! I’d hire them if they did, if they were the right man for the job! Or woman!”
Ken let out a rich tenor laugh. “Your old military mindset, boss! Hiring based on merit . . . I’m afraid that’s not how it works these days.”
“Representation matters,” said Pauline, emphasizing each word with a finger drilled against the bar. “I think the reviewers had a point.”
“I think you’d best remember I’m paying you double all week, huh?” Artie said. He raised an eyebrow and again tried to smile, but it hurt. He felt brittle, a ball of nerves being flicked by a whip—sooner or later he was going to snap. And then?
I cannot get one more bad review. If that Super Shouter bitch thought she could destroy Artie’s livelihood, she’d unleash an enemy worse than anything she could dream.
But what would I do? Kill her? The thought had appeal, but might make things worse. The sooner she and her sketchy not-quite boyfriend were out of his hair, the closer he’d feel to normal. “Pauline, can you go check up on them?” he asked. “See if they want more wine or water?”
“Sure,” said Pauline. Gamely, she straightened, smoothed out her gray blouse with the “V.E.” logo embroidered on the breast, grabbed a bottle of water from the ice bucket under the bar, and walked outside.
Artie kept his eye on her as she stood by the fire pit and tended to the customers from hell. In the firelight they both looked particularly devilish . . . but they were smiling, even the woman. She said something that made Pauline laugh as Pauline refilled her water glass, and then they were both laughing, actually finding humor in something like real human beings. Ken did say she wasn’t so bad . . .
Pauline came back and put the bottle of water back under the bar. “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Artie. They seem all right. The guy’s a little . . . you know, but everyone has their type.”
“What is going on?” said Artie. He ran a hand across his greying crew cut, not liking how it came away covered in sweat. “Is it just me?”
“You’re the owner, boss,” said Ken. He’d moved on to wiping down the bar top. “You’ve got power, and it gives her power over you.”
“It gives them all power over me,” Artie muttered. “Every Super Shouter.” He was used to giving orders, commanding men, making the life-or-death calls. And here he was, helpless in the face of a Super Shouter. It was so stupid that bullets and bombs and religious fanatics using themselves as bombs instilled less fear than one irate customer.
“Oh thank God,” Artie breathed, seeing one of the servers, a nice kid named Luis, come from the kitchen bearing two plates of food—one Nicoise salad and one order of mussels Provençal. “No anchovies on that salad, Luis?”
Luis looked over, giving Artie his wide smile. “Si.”
“Is that ‘Si, yes there are no anchovies,’ or ‘Si, there are anchovies?”
“No anchovies, boss!” Luis called over his shoulder as he headed outside.
Artie loved Luis’s accent, and enjoyed the way he said “anchovies” as ‘an-CHO-vees.’ Luis was a hard worker. Hell, they all were. That this unbelievable rude, bitter termagant out there could end this all and put them out of work made Artie want to grab his Ka-Bar and go to town. “God, they’d better like the food.”
“They will,” said Pauline. “Leon’s awesome. All right, back to my tables.”
“Thank you!” Artie called after her. And he meant it. Pauline had stepped up and saved his ass. If he was being honest, she deserved triple pay. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said to Ken. “I’m a likable guy. Why don’t they like me?”
“Because they can, boss. Not like you, that is. Power like that goes to some people’s heads.”
“You’d never do that, would you Ken?”
Ken shrugged. “I’d like to think not. But then again, I am not a Super Shouter.”
“Right,” said Artie, bobbing his head like a dunking bird. “Right. Okay. Whew. All right. I’m gonna go make the rounds.” He let out a squeaky fart that made him jump. “Oh my God excuse me.”
“Really must be nervous,” said Ken. He winked. “Don’t worry. I don’t think anyone heard.”
“Okay,” said Artie, feeling his face flush.
“Could’ve been a chair skidding against the floor for all they know.”
“Uh huh,” said Artie, flushing further. Ken’s attempts at easing Artie’s nerves only made things worse.
“Can’t really smell anything anyway.”
“Okay, that’s enough! Thank you!” said Artie. Ken was right, though. Artie’s momentary lapse in colonic control went by unnoticed by the customers. Meandering among the tables, upstairs and downstairs, chatting with patrons and discussing the finer points of Veritas Estate’s wine collection, was what Artie loved most. Forget the budgeting, the hiring, the maintenance, and compliance with local liquor laws: Artie was a people person and his personality was what, in his humble opinion, separated Veritas Estate from its competitors down the street.
And yet he couldn’t crack that Super Shouter. Speaking of whom, it was time to check back in with his favorite people by the fire pit. A few seconds to close his eyes and control his breathing the way he used to do before jumping out into a fucking warzone, and he was ready to go.
Artie’s knees almost buckled as he descended the steps, nearly toppling over. The stakes were too high here. Too high. If he lost Veritas Estates, he’d have nothing. Literally nothing. He’d have to live with one of his daughters, be one of those sad middle-aged men with no women, no money, no job, and no way to get one . . .
Oh, there’d be some boot-licking position he could take across the river. Some bureaucratic “yes sir, no sir” bullshit that would pay the bills. But he’d given thirty fucking years to Uncle Sam, the best years of his life, and for what? For a bad back, messed up lungs, and the enduring sight of a suicide bomber blowing up in front of him as he stormed Baghdad, so close that Artie ended up wearing the guy’s insides like a cloak.
Holy shit I’m losing it. At times like this, Artie wished he still went to church and remembered all those prayers he’d dismissed as a waste of time when a teenager. He hadn’t gone full-blown atheist, but his belief was weak at best.
Artie needed an exorcist or something. Tonight, he felt like he was facing the devil, or at least his ambassador here on Earth. It was a gut feeling, the same twisting in his stomach that had saved him so many times before. Why ignore it now?
Like in a dream, he was back on the patio. Now he was next to the fire pit, feeling the heat against his bare forearms. Artie’s smile was feverish, the sweat streaming freely down his body.
The evil woman, the Super Shouter, looked up, the firelight painting her features with flickering blacks and reds, her orange Super Shouter’s badge seemed to glow with an internal energy. And was it Artie’s imagination, or were there two small horns poking out from her glistening forehead. “Oh good. You’re back,” she snapped.
“Huh-huh,” said her boyfriend, chewing a forkful of salad with his mouth wide open. Fire reflected against his glasses, obscuring his beady brown eyes.
Artie folded his hands, mainly to keep them from shaking, and put on his biggest, boldest smile. “How’s your food?!”
The woman dipped a spoon into the bowl of mussels and lifted a small portion of red liquid before tilting the spoon, sending sauce splashing back over the poor mollusks that had given their lives to provide her with dinner. “You call this Provençal sauce?”
Artie blinked. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“Where’s the garlic.”
“I assure you there’s garlic in this, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ma’am. You don’t know me.”
“Huh-huh,” said her date, smacking his lips as he chewed. He really seemed to be enjoying this.
Can I call you “Satan”? Artie thought, almost cracking himself up. “If there’s something wrong with the sauce, I can get—”
“Sit,” she said, pointing sharply at the chair next to her.
Artie would rather not—in fact, every cell in his body screamed at him to remain standing, but dutifully he sat, still sweating and still smiling.
“I want you to taste this sauce,” she said, holding the spoon in front of his mouth like he were a toddler. Her toddler.
The thought sickened Artie. “I don’t think—”
“Taste. The fucking. Sauce.”
That was it. Something snapped. “Okay, look: You can’t talk to me like that. I’m more than happy to give you a full refund, but—”
Wetness on his head stopped Artie. It took a moment for him to realize the woman had dumped her half-glass of Riverview pinot noir over his head. Absently, Artie appreciated the wine’s subtle cherry undertones. They said that pinots were the softest of wines, the most feminine. It made Artie wonder why this woman didn’t prefer a glass of turpentine instead.
“What kind of restaurant are you running here, anyway?” the woman went on. “Taste the sauce. If you won’t even taste your own sauce, why would I? Why would anyone? Who serves customers food that you wouldn’t eat yourself? What does that tell you about this establishment?”
“I told you, I’ll give you your money back,” said Artie, trying to salvage this situation.
“It isn’t about my money. It’s about your restaurant. I have a responsibility to the citizens of Northern Virginia and the D.C. Metro area to ensure that they are getting the most top quality meal for their money. I’m trying to help you, get it?! Now taste the sauce.”
“It’s really not that bad,” said her boyfriend.
“Shut up,” the woman snapped.
Artie shifted, about to stand up, when the woman lifted her white porcelain bowl of mussels and upended it over Artie’s head. The shells clattered as they fell against his glasses and then to the flagstone below. She held the bowl up until every last drop of Provençal sauce heeded gravity’s pull and ended up in Artie’s hair. He had to admit that the Riverview pinot with the mussels Provençal was a killer combination.
“See?” the woman hissed. “No garlic.”
Artie blinked. He smiled. He looked around at the patrons aghast at the display before them. He turned towards the patio door where Ken, God bless him, had videotaped the whole thing on his phone. That he hadn’t come to intervene rankled, but Artie understood—catching a crime being committed was far better proof than he-said, she-said. And far better protection against a fraudulently negative review on Shout dot com.
Artie stood. He was at peace. He didn’t want that bad review. Merely posting something of two stars or less would immediately trigger the next steps. He could use Ken’s video as leverage. “I think this has gone long enough,” he said. “You can leave now.”
The woman picked up her phone. “Fuck you.”
“Write that review, and I’ll destroy you.”
That got her attention. She lifted her dead eyes towards Artie’s. “What?”
Artie pointed at Ken. Smiling, Ken held up his phone and gave it a jaunty shake. “You write that review, and I send the video to Shout. You know their motto, right? ‘We never lie’? I send that in, show them what really happened, and”—Artie snapped—“there goes your ad revenue. There go your perks, your free food and drink. There goes your status as Super Shouter.” He leaned forward, nearly whispering now. “There goes your power.”
The woman held Artie’s gaze for the briefest moment before shrugging. “It’ll be too late for you then.”
He could see the screen of her phone. She opened the Shout app on her phone as her stupid date chuckled and scraped every last bit of lettuce from his plate.
Artie did something then he hadn’t done in a long time: he panicked. His reflexes were as good as they’d been as a young recruit; darting out his hand, Artie snatched her phone and chucked it as hard as he could over the patio fence. He smiled when he heard the satisfying clank of the device first hitting the wall of the next building and then smacking against the alley floor.
He breathed out heavily and looked at the woman, matching her contempt with plenty of his own. And then Artie noticed something: He had stopped sweating. The feeling like hands on his throat evaporated. His heart did not feel ensnared by barbed wire, and the threat of impending vomit had receded. He was centered, back in the right headspace.
Artie kept smiling. He stuck out his tongue to taste a bit of the Provençal sauce dripping down his face. “For the record, the sauce is wonderful. Now I told you once and I’ll tell you again: you can go now.”
The patrons surrounding them erupted into spontaneous applause. The Super Shouter’s date had the common decency to look as though he’d rather be tromping bare-assed through Taliban-controlled territory with a “Fuck Me!” sign on his ass, but the Super Shouter herself seemed bored. She crossed her legs and jiggled one booted foot with something Artie sincerely hoped were nerves. She held out a hand to her date. “Give me your phone.”
“Oh, okay. Huh-huh,” he said, handing his smartphone over.
“Nice try!” said Artie. He stood with his legs splayed, hands behind his back, as though briefing his men. “But I know for a fact that the review won’t post. I also know that your stupid little badge right there contains key biometric info that’s tied to the Shout app on your phone. Only approved Super Shouters are allowed to have their reviews mean something, which is why Shout tightly guards who can and cannot submit these life or death reviews. Don’t look so surprised that I know all of this: I’m a business owner. I do my research.”
Still looking at Artie, the woman took her date’s proffered phone, tapped furiously with one thumb, and handed the phone back. “Send it,” she said.
“Er, okay,” said the man, his eyes shifting nervously from Artie to the woman. “Ah, for what it’s worth, my salad was really good.”
“Send the review,” she told him, her voice as icy as the void of space.
“Don’t bother,” said Artie, somewhat confused. “It won’t matter anyway.” He pointed at his sommelier, clearly enjoying the show. “Ken over there has all the proof I need to show Shout what a scammer you are. A miserable scammer. And mean. You are so nasty. I’ve fought literal, actual terrorists who’ve tried to kill me with knives and bombs and IEDs, and none of them were as nasty as you. Those people, they fought for something they believed in. It was wrong, but they had a purpose. They had a soul. You . . . God, I don’t know if I should hate you or feel sorry for you.”
This got more applause from the onlookers, but all the woman did was shake her foot and stare at Artie. Stare, stare, stare; shake, shake, shake. “Do you want to tell him, or should I?”
Artie’s smile faltered. The man sitting next to her pushed his glasses up on his nose and reached into his jeans pocket. “Huh-huh, yeah, it’s . . . I get awfully embarrassed wearing this, you know.” What he pulled out his pocket made Artie suddenly long for the glory days of the service: a small, orange badge.
“That’s not fair,” said Artie. The sweat had returned, and he was stammering. “That, that, that’s not fair. You have to wear those. By law, you have to wear those. That’s not fair at all.”
“Shut up,” said the woman. “Send it.”
“Why can’t he write a good review?” said Artie, twitching nerviously. “He liked his food. Why does it have to be bad? Why can’t he write a good review?”
The fire crackled as the patio’s other diners looked on in silent anticipation. This is a show to them, thought Artie, and nothing more. My life is on the line, and they want entertainment.
“Because he won’t,” said the woman. She turned to her date. “You won’t.”
The man gave Artie a sheepish smile and shrugged. “I’m, ah, sorry . . . you know how it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve . . . you know, huh-huh . . . and guys like me have to play our cards right . . .”
“W-what do you what?” Artie said, the words he’d been avoiding all night finally coming out of his mouth. “Why are you doing this?”
The woman’s voice was steel. “I told you. I have a responsibility to not let predators like you harm the public. What I want is for you to accept what’s coming to you.”
“P-predator? Because I was in the military, or . . . ?”
Her eyes narrowed and finally she smiled. It was a horrible sight. “Your being in the military has nothing to do with this. It’s about power. People like you have had power for too long, and Shout’s given people like me the chance to strike back. Doesn’t feel so good to be on the wrong end of the stick, does it, Mr. Bigshot?”
“What’s she talking about?” Artie blurted, turning to the man. “What, what, what’s she talking about? Did she have a bad experience with someone, or . . . ?”
The man shrugged, still grinning. “Huh-huh,” was all he had to offer.
“You can’t do this,” said Artie. He felt something hot and sticky behind his eyes. No. Not now. Not in front of her. But the legendary Artie Burton willpower was no match for the silent tears now streaming down his face. “You can’t do this.”
“Actually, I can,” said the woman. She tapped her badge. “This says so.”
“Please. Don’t. I’ll do anything.” Artie winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Those words gave her power, power Artie could never take back. But he was desperate. He knew what happened to business owners whose rank fell to one star on Shout. He had to keep this place running, at any cost.
The woman kept her Sphinx-like gaze on Artie. She stopped shaking her foot, deep concentration creasing her brow. Artie would have paid nearly anything to know what she was thinking . . .
“I think we can work something out,” she said.
* * *
Leaning against the jamb of the patio door, Ken Barnofsky, Advanced Sommelier and wine expert at Alexandria, Virginia’s Veritas Estate, was proud of his boss. Artie had stood up to that horrible woman, enduring humiliation after humiliation while keeping his cool—aside from that whole phone-throwing incident—and now ordered her and that weird little creep with her, to leave the restaurant. Again, the patio broke out in applause.
They walked past Ken in a huff, the woman in the lead and her date following like a groveling toady. Oddly, he was buckling the belt of his pants as though it had recently been loosened.
“Just, just so you know, that wine you recommended was really tremendous. Just great,” muttered the man.
“Oookay,” said Ken, giving a slight nod.
Artie walked up, wiping his wine and sauce covered face with a napkin. The napkin was midnight blue, the color picked by Artie to match a Marine uniform. Despite his complaints and general disillusionment with the Department of Defense’s power structure and confused mission, Artie was proud of his service and proud of his country and those who defended it from foreign enemies. A shame they couldn’t be deployed against the Super Shouters.
“You all right boss?” said Ken.
“What was that all about?”
“Some people just like power,” said Artie with a sigh of resignation. He clapped Ken on the shoulder. “That’s the way of the world. You get everyone out of here safely now. They’ll be here any second.”
“They gave the bad review?”
Artie nodded. “They gave the bad review. You know the drill.”
Ken did. They’d discussed this possibility a hundred times; hell, every restauranteur worth a damn had a Super Shouter contingency plan as a part of their standard operating procedure. Still, it didn’t make executing said plan any easier. “Sure. Got it. Hey, boss, if you don’t mind me asking . . .”
Artie anticipated the question. “Why didn’t I do what she wanted?”
“Yeah.” It’d be easier, right? A little debasement now, avoid the one-star rating, build the rating back up, and never worry about the Super Shouters again. Well, not never. But at least not for a good, long while.
“Because there are some things that I’d like to go to my grave never having done. Come on, Ken. Get this thing started.”
“You got it boss. Just so you know, it’s been an honor to serve with you.” And then, as silly as it felt, Ken snapped off a crisp salute. He’d never served in the military, and he sincerely hoped his boss didn’t take it as some sort of snide insult.
Artie didn’t. He smiled and, as the black clad Shout Team marched into the restaurant, knocking over chairs and tables and ordering diners out into the street, Artie snapped off a salute of his own.
The Shout Team grabbed Artie, two big, beefy guys with their faces obscured by the motorcycle-type helmets they wore, and dragged him to the front door. Artie didn’t resist. He had a peaceful smile on his face that even the first of the stones shattering the windows couldn’t wipe off.
Ken sighed, untied his napkin, and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Okay everyone! Out this way! Time to go!” He didn’t know if he’d ever see Lt. Col. Artie Burton again, but he did know he was proud of the man, prouder than he’d ever been, for finally having the guts to stand up to the tyranny of the Super Shouters, bad review be damned.