"Please. I insist."
Her face fell and she balled her fist.
He slid his hand toward hers. "Please. You're having a rough enough time as it is."
She sat quite still for a long moment, breathing shallowly and scanning the room. Bits of chatter rose above the scratchy trade unionist song playing on the overhead. It was just one more detail that set the FW Diners apart from anything else. The staff spent their time cultivating a sense of outrage among the customers, using the company's situation to encourage people to speak out about injustice elsewhere. It was what had attracted Leetha to the FW, and why she had accepted Marlowe Swaine's offer to share a table. But talk was just a starting point. They had engaged one another, and she wondered how many of those around her had done the same.
When Leetha again turned her attention to her tablemate, he was writing something in a small notebook. She raised a few fingers tentatively. "Thank you."
He stopped writing. "It's nothing you wouldn't have done in different circumstances. And it's part of the process."
Swaine closed his pen in the notebook and set it down. "Sure. Reversing the alienation that's been forced on us. Building community. If we're ever going to do anything about the social engineering that's been wrapped around us like a security blanket, we're going to have to reach out to one another, stand firm against the threats we're sure to face. Because that's all they really have, when you come right down to it. It's all just threats."
"We were talking about taxes, right?"
"From what I just saw, I'd say you just reached the end of your rope. I mean, hitting the limit on your last credit card, and being out of cash, even though you're still working. All that's really left to choose between is destitution and bankruptcy. And like so many others, you got there by following the path that had been laid out for you by all the institutions you thought were there to help. Only they're not."
Leetha relaxed a bit, distracted by conversation. "I tried so hard," she said. "I paid all my bills, did what I could to keep my interest rates down, but the rules don't make sense any more. It doesn't seem to matter what I do." Her finger hovered above the maxed-out credit card. "They sent a letter, changed my terms. Raised my interest to over thirty percent. But I hadn't done anything. I wasn't late. I didn't miss a payment. So why'd they do it?"
"That's actually a good sign, believe it or not," Swaine said with a humorless chuckle. "It means they're desperate."
"They're desperate?" she said incredulously.
"That's right. The credit card industry has been playing millions of people along on a combination of gambling and psychological warfare for so long that they've dug a hole they can't get out of. At first, there was at least some relationship between your actions and their response. Special charges and changes to your interest rate were all based on rules you could understand and abide by. But with all the bank buyouts and back-office deals, that changed. They made it so that if they had a business relationship with some other card company, so did you. Miss a payment on one bank's card, and the others hike your rate."