Barney was out with Tom and Barnes the first time he witnessed an extraction.
They had just strolled into one of the bigger bars on Wellington's waterfront and sat down in a booth when Barnes' cellphone bleeped.
“Changed your ringtone,” Barney remarked. He stirred his drink without really looking at it, trying to melt the ice quickly so it would be more diluted by the time he had to take a first sip.
Barnes struggled to extract his phone from the pocket of his tight trousers and swiped through the lock screen, frowning. “Nah, it's this new thing.”
“What kind of new thing?”
“Met this geezer the other day at work who signed me up. You get paid every week and then when you get this message, you gotta go help people out of awkward situations.”
“Huh,” said Tom. “Are you gonna run off and make a citizen's arrest now?” He laughed.
“No, it's legit, it's called Extractions Ltd. It says I should complete the job as soon as I can,” Barnes answered. “Come and watch me do it. We're looking for this girl.”
He held out his cellphone, showing a selfie portrait of a plump, pretty woman wearing fuschia lipstick. “Her name's Emma. She's supposed to be upstairs.”
“This is really inconvenient, I've barely started my drink,” said Tom. “Does it say what's the problem with her? Can she wait?”
“Take it with you, oi, Barnes already said we're not leaving the bar,” Barney replied. “I want to see this.”
Barnes led the other two through the bar, winding his way between clumps of talking, drinking people towards the main staircase. “Eyes out for Emma,” he said as they neared the top.
He needn't have bothered. Maybe it was the lipstick, or maybe it was the electric cloud of irritation that radiated from her, but Emma was impossible to miss. A balding man in a good suit was standing in front of her, boxing her into the far corner. His face was flushed, and he gripped the back of somebody else's chair to keep himself steady. The boys could hear him clearly from the other side of the room.
“Why are you being shy all of a sudden? Do you want another drink, is that it? I can get you whatever you want, let's both have another drink. Let's go wild!”
Barney watched the man try to suppress a belch with one hand and, concentration broken, stumble as he lost his balance. He looked at Barnes, who nodded, and set off towards the scene.
Slipping in between Emma and the man, Barnes cried “Babe!” and picked the girl up in a bear hug. He swung her around and put her down on the outside of the corner, away from the man's reach. “Been looking everywhere for you!”
She let out a nervous giggle and put her hand on Barnes' shoulder. “So good to see you, love! I didn't know you were back in town!”
The man moved backwards. His face narrowed into a crease as he made a dismissive gesture towards Barnes, but Emma hooked her arm into Barnes' and started to turn away. “Carl, it's been lovely to see you, but my friend's just turned up. Have a great night and I'll see you around.”
Recognising his cue, Barnes nodded at Carl and walked Emma back towards Barney and Tom, who had waited by the stairs. “You are Emma, right?” he asked. “I didn't just extract the wrong girl?”
She rolled her eyes and brushed out her hair with her fingers. “Nope, you came just in time. Good job.”
“Sweet. I'm Barnes, by the way, not to be confused with Barney,” he said, pointing. “And that's Tom. You alright? That guy was loose.”
Emma was beginning to regain her composure. She nodded, hunting in her handbag for her cellphone and checked it quickly. “Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Carl's one of my regular clients, he's just a dick when he drinks and I don't like seeing him unless he's actually paying for my time. It's so awkward trying to get away on a night out without offending people.”
Using the camera application on her phone as a mirror, she pulled out a tube of lipstick and began reapplying it.
“Oh,” said Barnes.
“You were great, though, want me to rate you now?” Emma said.
“Yeah, dope. Cheers.”
The girl tapped away, an expert with the app already. “Five stars for Barnes!”
“Cool,” he said.
“I better dash. Ciao boys.”
“We better go, too, huh,” Barney said. “Just in case that Carl guy is still watching us.”
Emma headed down the stairwell at a brisk pace, and the boys followed more slowly. Once she had gone around the first bend, Tom leaned in towards the other two. “I think Emma's a prostitute,” he said in a loud whisper. Barnes and Barney ignored him.
At the next bar, Barney played with the Extractions Ltd app on Barnes' phone. He swiped through the map function that had shown his friend where Emma was located, the invoice window that recorded the week's payments and micro-bonuses, and the FAQ page explaining how it all worked. It sounded too good to be true.
“So, how do you make money off of this thing again?” Barney asked.
“Easy,” Barnes boomed. He had been celebrating his first extraction with shots of jaeger. “They give me a flat rate of twenty dollars a week. In exchange, I promise to be in town for like, two nights out of seven, which I definitely would be anyway, and if I do more than one extraction per week I get bonuses. Apparently they're gonna start doing a business where they supply people to help out at parties and stuff as well, so that'll be extra top-ups again.”
“Shit, that does sound pretty easy,” said Barney. “How far out of your way do you gotta go to rescue people if you're not at a special party?”
“I dunno, I think it's limited to like, a couple hundred metres around you. The map would tell you where they are anyway.”
“Emma was super hot,” Tom said. “Can I get her number off that app?”
“Fuck you, it doesn't show that kind of information,” Barnes said. “Just a picture the person uploads of themselves, a first name and where they are.”
“Can I have the picture?” persisted Tom.
“No, you can suck my balls,” said Barnes, frowning down at Tom with all the conservative authority of a television cop. “I saved her, I'm not letting you jump in and start bothering her.”
“She's a fucking hooker, she won't mind!” Tom said, voice rising.
Barney leapt in. “Barnes, I wouldn't mind a go at that thing. I could do with a bit of cash. How do I join up?”
“I'll invite you now,” he said. “You have to get brought in by another member, and then the dudes who run it ring you up to see if you're OK.”
“That's it? There's no background check or anything?”
“Nah, they're just, like, a couple of techy guys with an office on Eve St. It's not an official thing.”
“Sign me up too, oi,” Tom cut in.
“Fuck off, Tom, girls would be out of the frying pan and into the fire if they asked you to come and rescue them,” Barnes scolded. “You dirty mongrel.”
Next week: Barney signs his life away, and demand for extractions skyrockets.
Sarah Dunn is the editor of our sister publication The Register/NZ Retail. This is her first published work of fiction about a tech startup.
Main image: Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris) by John Singleton Copley and inspired by The Toast (RIP)
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