A subliminal ad gimmick for a soil drink goes awry in London, and an aging bully boy is enlisted to destroy the evidence--a young waitress--in Thomson's latest dispatch from the hope-abandoned shadow zone he travels so widely and so well (The Insult, 1996, etc.). Barker wants to leave his troubles behind when he moves from his dreary digs in northwest England to London, but taking work as a barber doesn't pay his bills, so when an unsavory offer comes along (as he knew in his heart it would), he can't really refuse. The woman he's asked to murder, Glade Spencer, is a pretty art-school graduate whose insomnia led her to a ""sleep clinic"" that was actually a front for a top-secret, decidedly sinister marketing venture. The corporate handlers of Soft!, an orange-colored and -flavored beverage about to be launched in England, used the clinic to turn people subliminally into ""ambassadors,"" little more than walking ads for their product. But the effect of the ploy on Glade was severe: she came unhinged, arousing the suspicions of a friend, who then alerted the press. Before the story can break, however, the marketers employ a little old-fashioned damage control: namely, Barker. What they don't know is that he's sick to death of the mess he's made of his life, and determined not to make it worse. He follows Glade for weeks, watching her and uncertain how to proceed, but when the screws are turned on him he acts. Even at its bleakest, this suggests, more than incarnates, the banality of evil. But a full, unnerving control probes the fraying mental states of the story's doomed and damned from beginning to end--a focus that makes for positively riveting results.